Big picture: Heavenly photos for Advent

Alan Taylor runs The Atlantic’s In Focus photography blog and earlier created’s award-winning Big Picture, which became one of … Continued

Alan Taylor runs The Atlantic’s In Focus photography blog and earlier created’s award-winning Big Picture, which became one of the most popular blogs in North America. Each December for the past four years, to coincide with the pre-Christmas weeks of Advent, he has created a calendar of photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope that displays the vastness and beauty of the heavens. Taylor, a former Microsoft developer and onetime Alaska wildlife tour operator, answered a few questions of ours this week. 

Q. What prompted you to do the Advent calendar in the first place? What led you to the space-religion connection?

A. When I was growing up, we always had a fun Advent calendar in the house at Christmas. Usually something with chocolate, or some other prize. I loved the whole process, and how it coincided with the anticipation of Christmas Day. To be honest it was very much a secular sort of experience for me – a family tradition, like a tree, a wreath, or those candle-powered spinning chimes. When I was brainstorming for fun things to do with my old site, Big Picture, it just popped in my head one day - why don’t I do an Advent calendar of some kind? Something with spectacular photos — ooh, the Hubble photos, yes, that would be great. It was only after I started assembling it that the wider significance of ’beauty in the heavens’ during the Christmas season occurred to me, but that made it sweeter.

Q. You do a lot of photographs in general from NASA and of space. Does that bring out a spiritual side in you?

I’ve been utterly fascinated with astronomy since I was very little, so it comes naturally. I often feel that the (public domain) imagery from NASA really doesn’t get the exposure that it warrants. I’m not strictly what you would call a spiritual person, but I have had a couple of experiences in my life that I would call spiritual, which I believe helps me in my attempts to understand a variety of human experiences. In my view, the heart of much of that is a deep sense of awe, an experience where one feels that one is only glimpsing a tiny portion of something truly magnificent and powerful — and that somehow we are all connected to it. You could use the same description to fit Hubble images – the incomprehensible beauty, power, scale and mystery — and we are all connected to it, within sight of it, part of it all. How can you look at these photos and not feel that sense of wonder and awe.

Q. What has been the response from your many commenters worldwide. Are there one or two comments that stand out?

Once or twice I’ve heard from people that are angry that I’m mixing the two streams of science and religion, but mostly the response is what I hoped for – people taking a moment to view the images, read the descriptions, be amazed, and anticipate tomorrow’s image. I can’t think of any standout comments at the moment, but a pretty common one is simply: “Brilliant.”

Q. If you could choose a half-dozen photographs from your years doing this, which would they be and why?

A.. I’ll pick three:



Nearly 10,000 galaxies are seen in this composite image made with the Hubble Space Telescope and released by NASA on Tuesday, March 9, 2004. This is the deepest look, named the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, into the visible universe ever; revealing a wide range of galaxies in various shapes, sizes and ages. (AP Photo/ NASA/ESA)

1. Hubble Ultra-deep field. A massive image made up of multicolored dots, that, on closer examination are galaxy-shaped… and then you realize the image is filled with galaxies, each containing billions of stars, and this is just a tiny patch of sky — the tip of a  ball-point pen held at arm’s length would cover these up. Extrapolating out, this image gives us the greatest appreciation of how unbelievably vast our visible universe is — and that’s just what we are physically capable of seeing (within 13 billion light years)

2. Light echoes in V838 Monocerotis, a massive stellar explosion blasted out high-energy particles in a sphere, which encountered gaseous structures, lighting it all up like a spherical set of ripples 13 light-years wide (View the explosion series here
.) A series of photos was taken over several years, and when animated, one can see the dynamic nature of the universe. Because the structures we can see are often so huge and distant, it’s rare to see such motion — and to see it behave ‘’just like home.’’,in predictable natural ways, makes even more of a connection.



This photo supplied by NASA and the European Space Agency Tuesday, April 3, 2007, is a Hubble Space Telescope view of the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1672, showing up clusters of hot young blue stars along its spiral arms, and clouds of hydrogen gas glowing in red.

3. Spiral galaxies.You can get such a close-up of our galactic neighbor — imagine if it were 50 times closer, loomed larger than the full moon in our skies, how that would look. It’s also so close and yet so far. 2.5 million light-years away.

Q. You often reflect religious themes in your blog posts, including Hajj and Eid and Holy Week. How do you see religion among the big stories that affect the world each year? 

A. In my view, religion can mean so many different things, from dogma and doctrine that drive politics and conflict, to comfort, community, charity, and in a wider sense, a way of seeing our world and our places in it. We are all here on this planet with the same set of questions: Why are we here? What is our purpose? What is this place? What comes after this life?

Each of us try to answer in our own ways, independently, or with others. Really understanding something doesn’t just mean comprehension, it requires some empathy as well. Still photographs transcend a number of boundaries, and let viewers get right up close, intimate, with others whose practices or beliefs might differ radically, but are simply human beings with hopes, dreams, and questions as well.

Too often, news stories involving religion paint stark contrasts, often playing into the hands of those who would use these divisions to fire up baser tribal responses and spread conflict. It’s harder to paint the middle ground, certainly less exciting. When I can present a portrait of someone who lives in a land and culture far removed from the viewer, and they can look in the eyes of the person in that photo, and see a spark of familiarity, a recognition of our wider human connection, that just means so much.

David Beard is the Washington Post’s editor for sitewide engagement and former editor of, where he first met Alan Taylor.


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  • amelia45

    Thank you for this. The photos are wonderful. God and creation are so much more than we can ever see or understand.

  • Jaimiewj22

    The Hubble has revealed so much of God’s beauty created for us. When it’s gone we lose some His light.

  • Rongoklunk

    The ancients called the sky “the Heavens” because they figured Gods lived up there. But we know better than the ancients. We’ve been up there, and all around the skies and have to conclude that there’s nobody up there.

    The ancients at an earlier stage thought the stars were little holes in the sky that let light through. They were ignorant beyond our imagination, and superstitious to a fault. But today we realise that there are no gods and never were.

  • Rongoklunk

    It wasn’t created for us. The cosmos is too vast for teenyweeny little lifeforms like us. For instance Alpha Centauri is on the fringes of our solar system – five light years away. If our speediest rocket left earth today to go to Alpha Centauri – it would take ten thousand years to get there. TEN THOUSAND YEARS!!! And that’s still nowhere in particular – just out on the fringes of our solar system, not that far away.

    The rest of the cosmos is infinite – and infinitely vast, and we are tinier than ants – and our planet just a dot – in the never-ending vastness of the cosmos. Made for us??? I don’t think so.

  • ThomasBaum

    We’ve been up there, and all around the skies and have to conclude that there’s nobody up there.

    Sounds kind of contradictory, doesn’t it?

    In one breath, you say that the cosmos is so vast and then in the next breath you seem to conclude that the little and it appears that it is very little, that we have checked out tells us that “there’s nobody up there”.

    How do you know just what the “ancients” figured?

    There were many, many “ancients” and I would think that many thought many different things just as many today think many different things.

    Are we really all that way “above” the “ancients” or do we just deceive ourselves into thinking that?

    The “heavens”, by the way, does not just refer to heaven.

    As far as “They were ignorant beyond our imagination”, seems as if they came up with some very intriguing things and aren’t some still wondering just how some of the things done pyramidally, were actually done?

    The “pyramids” are just one example, there are others.

    Have you ever wondered if some of the “ancients” looked back on the “more ancient” and looked down on them as “ignorant?

  • GoldenEagles


    Rongoklunk says, (12/10/2011 8:36 AM PST), “It wasn’t created for us. The cosmos is too vast for teenyweeny little lifeforms like us.”

    If you had a grasp of the Whole Story, you would understand that the whole universe WAS created for the Children of God, as a redemption platform, even as a redemptive institution. Not just the earth. But the WHOLE UNIVERSE.

    The fact that the Hubble space telescope has helped us to understand that the physical universe is composed of billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars, each star a potential anchor point for a solar system that would nurture a group of planetary homes, like unto our own, helps us to understand the magnitude of the Great Rebellion that caused so many of God’s Children to fall away from the grace of God, and thus, to fall away from their native life in the domains of Light and Peace and Bliss.

    The vast expanse of the universe mirrors the vast magnitude of souls that require the services that this redemptive institution provides. Truly, the numbers stagger the capacity of the human mind to fathom.

    The participants in the rebellion, which appear to be innumerable from our perspective, were assigned to this redemptive system, which was created out of the very Power of God’s Love for the purpose of saving these souls, and bringing them home.

    The distances between stars and galaxies speaks to God’s Desire to minimize the capacity of one fallen and rebellious culture to influence another that might be on the mend.

  • GoldenEagles

    The paragraph that reads:

    The vast expanse of the universe mirrors the vast magnitude of souls that require the services that this redemptive institution provides. Truly, the numbers stagger the capacity of the human mind to fathom.

    Should have read:

    The vast expanse of the universe mirrors the vast number of souls that require the services that this redemptive institution provides. Truly, the numbers stagger the capacity of the human mind to fathom.

  • Rongoklunk

    I have never seen the slightest scientific proof of the religious theories of heaven and hell, of future life for individuals, or of a personal God.
    Thomas Edison 1847-1931. Columbia Magazine.

    Neither in my private life nor in my writings have I ever made a secret of being an out-and-out unbeliever.
    Sigmund Freud !856-1939

    Properly read, the bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.
    Isaac Asimov 1925-1992

    As for myself, I do not believe that such a person as Jesus Christ ever existed, but as the people are inclined to superstition, it is proper not to oppose them.
    Napoleon Bonaparte 1769-1821

    I’m an atheist and that’s it. I believe there’s nothing we can know except that we should be kind to each other and do what we can for each other.
    Katherine Hepburn quoted in Ladies Home Journal Oct.!991

    The bible is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it, and some clever fables, and some blood drenched history, and some good morals, and a wealth of obscenity, and upwards of a thousand lies.
    Mark Twain 1835-1910 in Letters from the Earth

    My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures have become clearer and stronger with advancing years, and I see no reason for thinking why I should ever change them.
    Abraham Lincoln 1809-1865

    I do not believe in the divinity of Christ, and there are many other of the postulates of the orthodox creed to which I cannot subscribe.
    Wm Howard Taft 1857-1930

    The memory of my own suffering has prevented me from ever shadowing one young soul with the superstitions of the Christian religion.
    Elizabeth Cady Stanton 1815-1902

    I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.
    Carl Sagan 1934-1996

    I regard monotheism a

  • Rongoklunk

    A knowledge of the true age of the earth and of the fossil record makes it impossible for any balanced intellect to believe in the literal truth of every part of the Bible the way fundamentalists do. And if some of the Bible is manifestly wrong, why should any of the rest of it be accepted automatically?
    Francis Crick. co-discoverer of DNA

    There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the life of Jesus. The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth, and died to give his work its final consecration, never had any existence.
    Albert Schweitzer.1875-1965 French Physician, Philosopher and Humanitarian in “The Quest For The Historical Jesus”.

    Scientific research is based on the idea that everything that takes place is determined by laws of nature, and therefore this holds for the action of people.
    For this reason, a research scientist will hardly be inclined to believe that events could be influenced by a prayer, ie., by a prayer to a Supernatural Being.
    Albert Einstein 1879-1955 in his biography ‘The Human Side”.

    The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence that it is not utterly absurd; indeed, in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.
    Bertrand Russell 1872-1970 Philosopher and Mathematician, in “Marriage and Morals.”

    If revealed religions have revealed anything it is that they are usually wrong.
    Francis Crick co-discoverer of DNA

    If you talk to God, you are praying; if God talks to you, you have schizophrenia.
    Thomas Szasz MD psychologist in, “The Second Sin”

    Although the time is approaching me, I am not afraid of dying and going to Hell or (what would be considerably worse) going to the popularized version of Heaven. I expect death to be nothingness and, for removing me from all possible fears of death – I am thankful to atheism,
    Isaac Asimov 1920-1992 Scientist and

  • Rongoklunk

    There are no gods and never were. Fact.

  • GoldenEagles


    The soul was designed as an infinitely expansive resonant chamber within which the reverberations of sublime and radiant memories were intended to continuously resound.

    For those of us in physical embodiment, we see that the beauty of nature was given to us, by God, as a great healing treasure to assist us in restoring this giant bell to is original operational status.

    Like a great theater organ, long silent, it is meant to come alive again.

    To serve this purpose, we have, alongside the majesty of galaxies, vast and distant, the inestimable humming bird, which represents at rest and in flight, and in a very small space as well, an unusually high and magnificent concentration of artistic achievement revealing the hand of God in action most clearly.

    A few moments of respectful contemplation upon this stupendous example of Divine Creativity, will help to bring alive within us what we already know about the Glory of God from our own personal experience within our long forgotten past, indeed a life lived, over vast stretches of time (before the fall) in the radiant and empowering embrace of God’s Love, a love lavished upon us in infinite measure.

    If you have ever seen these creatures with your own eyes, you will remember being gripped, and happily so, by a special delight and fascination. In this posture of awareness, the Divine Soul is coming back to life. And within this sense of beauty, we begin to remember God, and our former relationship with God. This was a good relationship.

    The memory is not distinct, as it yet calls from a great distance, but its power to lift the soul out of all worry and concern in the moment, cannot be denied.

  • GoldenEagles

    Strong intellects are vulnerable to pride, and the spiritual blindness associated therewith. It is an occupational hazard. God our Father will Forgive them.

  • GoldenEagles

    Strong intellects are vulnerable to pride, and the spiritual blindness associated therewith. It is an occupational hazard. God our Father will Forgive them.

  • GoldenEagles

    Rongoklunk says, “There are no gods and never were. Fact.”

    What you characterize as a “fact” is actually only a desperate and silly hope on your part. You will discover that sooner or later. I hope.