The Man Who Coloured the Cosmos

The Man Who Coloured the Cosmos

Once, all deep space photography was black-and-white. Then a chemist in Australia developed a new technique, and colour exploded from the heavens.

FEW PEOPLE have a building named after them, much less an asteroid, a planet or a star. But a whole galaxy? Filled with billions and billions of stars? That’s what happened to David Malin, one of Australia’s most celebrated astronomers and one the world’s foremost astronomical photographers. And it happened by accident.

In 1976, he was collecting new images for a book by fellow astronomers at the then spanking new Anglo-Australian Observatory in Siding Spring, near Coonabarabran, in outback New South Wales state.

“I started playing with these plates from the UK Schmidt Telescope in the darkroom,” he recalls. Trialling a technique he had only just invented — one that extracted more of the faint light from stars — he noticed something unusual: “A galaxy near the Virgo cluster had a funny thing sticking out of it. I didn’t know what it was, or even if it was meaningful.”

It looked like a jet sticking out of Messier 89, a well-known elliptical galaxy in the constellation Virgo. His fellow astronomers were surprised—the region had been well surveyed, so the object was unexpected. He soon found himself one of the authors of a paper in the peer-reviewed scientific publication, _Astronomical Journal_— his first.

This made Malin rather fond of the constellation. Years later, while re-photographing the same region at higher resolutions, as part of a survey of the faintest galaxies, he spotted another strange blob with wisps around in one of the images. He planted an exclamation mark next to it on the photographic plate, and sent it to his colleagues in the United States.

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Combination of four images of Malin 1 obtained by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (Boissier/A&A/ESO/CFHT)

His American collaborators were flabbergasted — they had never seen anything quite like it before. Later, when they pointed a radio telescope at the mysterious new object, they were astonished to find it was not only a completely new type of galaxy, it was also much, much further away — far beyond the Virgo cluster…and very, very large.

“They were very enthusiastic about it,” says Malin in his characteristically modest way. “In fact, we ended up producing another paper, with me as third author. I was very happy with that, particularly when they named the galaxy ‘Malin 1’ in the paper.”

Malin-1 is arguably the biggest spiral galaxy ever discovered — more than three times the size of our own Milky Way, itself rather large. Known as a giant low surface-brightness spiral galaxy, it is located 1.19 billion light-years away, and has diameter of some 650,000 light-years. Despite years of searching since, only three more of these faint and elusive conglomerations of stars have ever been seen.

Not bad for someone who wasn’t even an astronomer. In fact, Malin had begun his working life in England as a chemist.


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*FTER GRADUATING *from a technical college in Lancashire, Malin landed a job in Manchester working as a laboratory assistant for the giant chemical company, Ciba-Geigy. Although he’d taken apart his grandparents’ box camera at the age of 6, and had played with lenses and magnifying glasses as a child, it wasn’t until he took a holiday in Paris in his early twenties that he acquired a passion for photography.

“To a kid from the grimy suburbs of north England, Paris was just a mind-blowing experience,” he recalls. “I was pointing this borrowed camera everywhere … click, click, click.”

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Malin seated in the prime focus cage of the 3.9-metre Anglo-Australian Telescope in 1976 (David Malin)

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The Anglo-Australian Telescope (centre) and the UK Schmidt Telescope (bottom) on Siding Spring Mountain, with the Warrumbungle Ranges in the distance (David Malin/AAO)

He returned with a dozen rolls of black-and-white film he couldn’t afford to develop, so friends at Ciba-Geigy’s labs showed him how to do it himself. “They showed me how to mix the chemicals to make developer, how to use an enlarger which was hiding in some dark corner of the company. And suddenly, my French holiday was re-appearing in front of my eyes.

“This was a magical experience for me, because I was not only able to recreate the images I made in Paris, but fiddle with them, get them to say what I felt when I took the picture. I was able express something creative.”

He was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the process he didn’t notice a Ciba-Geigy executive stumble upon him developing his holiday snaps on company time. “Now, the right thing to do was to fire me,” says Malin. “But he went to my boss and said, ‘This man clearly has some photographic interest, you should encourage him in that direction’. And my boss did: he gave me a microscope and some crystals and said he wanted pictures of them.”

At the time, industrial chemists were becoming increasingly interested in how chemicals like pigments and additives behaved at a microscopic level. Malin began to conduct microscopic studies of common chemical problems. His work proved so successful that within a few years he was heading a research team of four people, using fancy new microscopes and x-ray machines.

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Light from loose grouping of bright stars is scattered by dust, producing a ‘reflection nebula’, 1,350 light-years away in the constellation of Orion; made from plates taken in October 1979 (David Malin/AAO

But despite being widely lauded by other researchers and advancing several company projects with his discoveries over the 18 years he worked there, the company refused to officially make him head of the laboratory — which would have meant a much-needed pay rise. “It was very British,” Malin says dryly. “I didn’t have the right paper qualifications.”

Now in his mid-30s, married to an Australian and with three children and a mortgage on a country cottage in Cheshire, he realised his career could advance no further.

One day, reading the international science journal Nature, he spied a job advertisement for someone to run a photographic laboratory at a new observatory in Australia. It was 1975, and the Anglo-Australian Observatory (AAO) — the country’s pre-eminent astronomical facility — had just opened its doors. “This job just seemed the bee’s knees,” recalls Malin.

He applied, and soon enough had moved to Australia. “I jumped in at the deep end, because I didn’t know much about astronomy when I joined. But everyone was new, everything was new. If you wanted a cloth to wipe something, you had to go out and buy one. It was a big adventure — so falling into the deep end was a really good way to go. If you survive, you learn to swim very effectively and quite quickly.”

science photography history astronomy space data science

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