October 9, 2013
On March 10, 2006, seven months after an Atlas rocket boosted it into space from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter fell into place in the Red Planet’s orbit. Since then, the $720 million spacecraft has been hovering 150 to 200 miles above the surface of Mars, surveying for suitable landing sites for future missions and any evidence that water once flowed there.
On board the MRO is one of the heftiest and most adept cameras ever to document a planet’s terrain. The HiRISE, short for High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, has captured more than 29,000 insanely-detailed images—of a highly-concentrated 1.8 percent of the surface of Mars—in seven years.“The images taken by HiRISE…reveal all of the beauty of Mars,” writes Alfred S. McEwen, a planetary science professor at the University of Arizona and principal investigator for HiRISE, in This is Mars, a new book published by Aperture. “While their quality and precision are indispensable for the scientific success of the MRO’s mission, they also faithfully capture the planet’s mysterious splendor.”
“Physical processes have produced pleasing patterns on its surface, such as polygons, stair-stepped layers, flowing sand dunes, meandering river deposits, lava flows with spiraling coils, explosive impact craters with dramatic radial patterns, eroded mesas with vertical cliffs, layered ice deposits over the poles, icy flows over the middle latitudes, dust deposits with strange textures, and,” he continues, “sharp-rimmed gullies that look like they formed just yesterday (some of them did).”
The wonder was certainly not lost on French photographer, designer and editor Xavier Barral. Barral grew up in the shadows of the Paris Observatory and has been interested in space for decades. For the purposes of compiling This is Mars, a half-art, half-science glossy coffee table book, he approached NASA and was granted access to a massive archive of Mars images.
Barral scanned multiple times the roughly 30,000 photographs taken by the MRO—an equivalent of more than 300,000 miles were he to have walked the distance represented by each photo by foot. Along the way, he consulted with McEwen and other scientists, including astrophysicist Francis Rocard and geophysicist Nicolas Mangold, who helped identify and explain the geological features he saw. But, first and foremost, Barral sought compellingly composed photos—he hand-selected about 150 images to feature in his book.
Each black-and-white photograph in the book covers a swath of Mars 3.7 miles wide, and yet no two are alike in their swirls, ridges, pock marks, blotches and striations.
“I can’t prevent myself from seeing references to all of art history,” says Barral. “It is all intertwined. All these geological shapes have artistic qualities.”
The designer extracted the most surprising points of view, in his opinion, from the MRO’s collection. “What surprises me in these observations of Mars is the unsuspected shapes of the landscape, showing 4.5 billion years of history,” he says. “These observations bring us closer to the remote—in time and in space—and fuel our imagination.”
In his book, Barral wanted to replicate his experience of coming to these enigmatic compositions, unversed in the geology of Mars, for his viewers, and so reproduced the photographs at a fairly large scale, nearly 13 inches by about 9 inches, without any labels. Only in the back of the book does he provide a key, detailing the actual landmarks and their geographic coordinates.
“At the end of this voyage, I have gathered here the most endemic landscapes. They send us back to Earth, to the genesis of geological forms, and, at the same time, they upend our reference points: dunes that are made of black sand, ice that sublimates,” writes Barral in the book. “These places and reliefs can be read as a series of hieroglyphs that take us back to our origins.”
October 1, 2013
What does the universe sound like? Contemplating the sky on a dark, clear night, a casual observer might balk at the question: without the hum of human life, how could the universe sound like anything? But the universe is, in fact, a noisy place. From collisions to pulsar starts, it emits an abundance of sounds. The only problem is that these sounds are in frequencies too low for the human ear—we are literally deaf to the symphony of cosmic music around us.
We won’t stay deaf much longer though, if any unlikely duo has its way. Mickey Hart, leader of the Mickey Hart band and former drummer for the Grateful Dead, has teamed up with Nobel Prize-winning cosmologist George Smoot to turn the frequencies of the universe into music for human ears. Hart and Smoot “sonify” light and electromagnetic waves collected through various telescopes by shifting them up to octaves that humans can hear.
It’s a project that Hart stumbled upon while exploring the nature of rhythm. “I wrote two books in ’90 and ’91 called Drumming at the Edge of Magic, and I tried to find where the brotherhood and the sisterhood of rhythm came from,” Hart said at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, which hosted a screening of Rhythms of the Universe and a panel with Hart and Smoot, the film’s makers, on Sunday. “I went back through the historical records, and of course, in order to really find out where vibrations come from, you had to go back to the singularity—you had to go back to the Big Bang.”
Going back to the Big Bang isn’t an easy task, but George Smoot and others at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California began making huge strides forward in understanding cosmic microwave background radiation, or the thermal radiation leftover from the expansion of the Big Bang. Cosmic microwave background is literally light emitted from the Big Bang, which has traveled more than 14 billion years to where we can detect it today. By detecting cosmic background radiation, astrophysicists and cosmologists can literally look at the light—and particles—from the beginning of space and time.
“We didn’t know exactly where it was or when it was, until George pinned the tail on the donkey so to speak and found the cosmic background radiation,” Hart explained. “So now I had the start of the story. I had beat one—the moment of creation, when the beat started. It was a beautiful timeline. Any rhythmist worth his salt could not turn away from the idea of tracing the history of time and space.”
This isn’t the first time Smoot and Hart have crossed paths—Smoot used to date someone whose best friend was the sound engineer for the Grateful Dead—but this is the first time the two have collaborated professionally. When, later on their careers, the two encountered one another working in sound preservation, Smoot mentioned to Hart that he had been involved in a project that converted astronomical data, in the form of acoustic wavess, into audible sound. Hart was immediately intrigued.
“It’s inspiration for music, and he’s always trying to write and create new stuff,” Smoot said. Hart took Smoot’s data, and, with the help of others at the Lawrence Lab and elsewhere, began converting the data into music. Data for the music was collected from a wide range of celestial bodies—our own sun, various pulsating stars (known as pulsars), distant galaxies and, of course, the cosmic microwave background—Hart’s beat one.
“The information that was gathered from radio telescopes was transferred into the computers, and we turned radiation and light into sound,” Hart explained.
Sonifications—like the one below, which features data from a Pulsar B0531+21 (colloquially known as the Crab Pulsar)—contain valuable scientific information, but aren’t the most amusing to listen to. The sonification for the pulsar represents one of the most musical of the raw scientific data, since pulsars are by nature one of the most rhythmic celestial objects (in fact some pulsars are so rhythmically accurate that they rival atomic clocks).
Other sonifications, however, like those of solar winds or microwave background radiation, are less rhythmic and appear, at least in their raw form, less like what we recognize as music. In order to render these sonifications pleasurable, Hart enlisted the help of members of his band, the Mickey Hart Band, and proceeded to take some artistic liberties with the raw scientific data.
“What you’re seeing is a step along the way to the vision that we put out before, which was that this would be both entertainment and education in different levels. Many sounds are very educational, but not so entertaining—there’s information there but it’s not very pretty,” Smoot explained. “You hear a pulsar, and it has a kind of heartbeat, whereas most of the other things you hear are being made into art. You hear Mickey being a creative musician.”
The end product was the twelve-track Mysterium Tremendum, which was released in April 2012. The album included sonification with, as Hart describes it, “Earth music” added to create an enjoyable listening experience. “This brings together art and science, which is a very powerful combination,” Hart said. “I try to use as little amount of whole Earth instruments [music added by musicians using instruments and voice] as I could, but still make it entertaining.”
After the release of the album, Hart and Smoot continued, creating a multimedia representation of the music with a video, Rhythms of the Universe. The 20-minute film features high-definition photographs of celestial elements shown alongside Hart’s sonified music—so when viewers see the Crab Pulsar, they hear the sounds that go along with it.
Both Hart and Smoot hope that the video will eventually make its way into educational settings and inspire the minds of young scientists and artists. But, for now, Hart is focused on its rhythm—rhythms having held sway over the musician for much of his life.
“The whole universe is based on vibrations—it’s the basic element of all life, and rhythm is controlled vibration,” Hart said. “Everything has a sound and a light. Everything that moves is alive; if it isn’t it’s inanimate, it’s dead. And when the rhythm stops, we stop.”
August 13, 2013
In less than 60 days, artist Sergio Albiac has created more than 11,000 portraits. This kind of productivity, no doubt, seems unfathomable—until you consider his artistic method.
Albiac is a practitioner of generative art, a discipline in which artists employ non-human assistants—often computers—to make aesthetic decisions. “An artist has the potential to create infinite artworks but only some of them will see the light due to the constraint of time,” says the artist on his website. “What if we use technology to outsource the creation of art so more of these potential artworks are finally created?”
For his latest project, “Stardust Portraits,” Albiac, a computer science engineer with a background in art and art history, wrote software that can take a photographic portrait submitted by the public and recreate it as a cosmic mosaic of Hubble space telescope images.
“Starting with the photo as reference, the software randomnly chooses two Hubble images from a predetermined set,” says Albiac, who is based in Barcelona. He hand-selected about 50 images from the Hubble site for his color palette. ”Then, it uses a technique that I call ‘generative collage,’” he adds. “It finds random sections of the Hubble photo that ‘resemble’ areas of the original photo.” Ultimately, the software replaces every single pixel of the original portrait with a tidbit of stars and galaxies from the Hubble images.
The orbs in each portrait, whether an aesthetic choice or fundamental to the software’s code, nonetheless reflect an important theme of this project—how we are all made up of smaller pieces through the “creation of new atomic nuclei from pre-existing matter that takes place at cosmic scale,” Albiac explains on his site. “We humans are believed to be novel combinations of cosmic stardust,” he says. In fact, “It could be argued that the whole universe is the biggest running generative art installation today.”
As an artist, Albiac is interested in the “controlled chance” of what he calls his “truly contemporary medium.” He has control over the technique in that he personally designs the software, and yet there is this element of random, in the way that the program, using algorithms, generates the collages. Albiac thinks the interplay between control and randomness and computer and human interaction is poetic. He is also intrigued by how generative art can allow artists to be much more prolific, and, as long as the software survives, create work long after they die.
In the past, Albiac has created generative portraits of famous poets and composers from excerpts of their manuscripts and sheet music. He calls them “self portraits.” He also produced a series where visages appear in clever arrangements of newsprint.
“Creativity is infinite,” says Albiac. For “Stardust Portraits,” the artist chose to piece portraits together using images collected from the Hubble telescope because the images seemed to align with this theme. “New ideas are the result of combinations and processing of existing ideas, as new matter is a cosmic combination of existing matter. Everything is connected, recycled, reformulated, forever,” he says.
The project relies on the generosity of strangers submitting photographs of themselves. To participate, Albiac asks that you upload a head shot (in jpg format) to a Google Drive cloud storage and share it with email@example.com, specifying a “can edit” access level. In about three days time, Albiac promises to send you three “stardust” portraits generated from the original photo.
Curious as to what Albiac’s software would generate, I submitted my own photo to the project. Within days, I received this “stardust” portrait, above. The resemblance is striking. Though it contains not one pixel of my original portrait, Albiac’s version is recognizable; I am looking into my eyes.
I am not sure the portrait raised new questions for me or changed my view of myself—a grandiose goal, Albiac admits. But, I have to say, seeing it did fill the artist’s most basic desire.
“Just an instant of happiness is enough,” says Albiac.
July 18, 2013
Ron Miller wanted to be a scientist. “Since I was little, I have loved astronomy,” he says. “But it didn’t take me long to realize that you have to have some kind of abilities in math to be a scientist—and all numbers over 80 look pretty much alike to me.”
So, while keeping up his interest in science, Miller pursued another love, art. He earned a degree in illustration from Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio in the 1960s. “It eventually occurred to me that I could combine the two, and do scientific artwork,” he says.
Miller tested his hand at astronomical paintings. When he heard the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum was opening a planetarium in the 1970s, he sent some of his artwork, effectively convincing the museum to hire him as the facility’s art director. He held this post at the Albert Einstein Planetarium for five years before embarking on a career as a freelance illustrator in 1977.
In the past few decades, Miller has written and illustrated more than 50 books, his latest being Is the End of the World Near? From Crackpot Predictions to Scientific Scenarios. His artwork has been featured in numerous magazines, including Air & Space, Scientific American, National Geographic and Discover, and he has dabbled in film, as a production illustrator for Dune (1984) and Total Recall (1990).
About 10 years ago, Miller picked up digital art. “I resisted digital for a long time. I thought it would look generic,” he says. “I did a few and showed them to my friends who said, ‘Oh, these look just like Ron Miller paintings.’ That’s all it took to sell me on it.” The artist, who hails from South Boston, Virginia, now composes most of his images in Photoshop. “This way I can do higher quality work in a much quicker time. I could do a piece of artwork that would take me a week to paint in a day,” he adds.
Recently, Miller released a series of images that shows what our skyline would look like if other planets were as close as the moon is to Earth. He has also created a compelling series depicting the apocalypse. While some of the end-of-the-world scenarios are pure fantasy, most are actually scientifically plausible.
“Sometimes it takes longer to research things than it takes to actually do the picture,” says Miller. He consults with scientists and other sources, so that his illustrations of rising seas, asteroids, gamma ray bursts and black holes are accurate. “I try to get things right,” he stressed.
The reality is dramatic enough. See for yourself, in this selection of Miller’s work:
A Black Hole Swallows the Earth
From Miller: In this case, you have a stray black hole that wandered just a wee tad too close to Earth. I got the black hole pretty right. I have the polar jets, which its magnetic field causes. The energy pours into these things from incoming material and gets shot out [of] these plasma jets from the north and south poles. Earth has probably got about 15 minutes left, I think. Just like the Moon causes tides on Earth, the gravity of the black hole is so great that it is pulling much, much harder on one side of Earth than the other. That’s the strain that is ripping the planet apart. As the planet comes apart, all of the debris is spiraling into the debris disk circling the black hole. It goes down that drain into who knows where.
Buried Under Ash
From Miller: I found out about what the ashfall might be like if the Yellowstone Caldera did erupt. South Dakota is not that far away from Wyoming, and we are talking about hundreds to maybe 1,000 feet or more, which if I average it would bring it about up to the chins of the presidents [at Mount Rushmore]. Who knows? Even talking to the scientists, it is all very speculative. If the explosion is such-and-such size and if the winds blow the right way…speculation piled upon speculation. There is a broad range of ash depths. I picked the one that would be right for me. I came up with Mount Rushmore buried in ash.
Submerged Under Rising Seas
From Miller: This shows sea level rise, maybe only even a couple decades from now, considering that London is pretty much as sea level to start with. We are only talking about a few tens of feet to flood the city. I made sure I covered the bus with seagull guano. Attention to detail.
Meteors Strike Earth
From Miller: I deliberately made that big crater the same size as the one in Arizona, just for scale. If the meteor that made Meteor Crater 30,000 years ago had hit Manhattan, that is the size of the hole. It is about a half of a mile wide. I drew the Arizona crater on top of a map of Manhattan. A lot of people have seen pictures of the Meteor Crater in Arizona, but it is hard to tell the scale of it because it is out there in the middle of the desert. So putting the two together, I think, gives people an idea of how awful this sort of thing might be.
A Tsunami Pounds the East Coast
From Miller: This is supposed to be a tsunami resulting from the collapse of an underwater mountain in the Azores. I did six different versions of this. I did some predicting about how big that tsunami would be, which wouldn’t be anything like this. The magazine editors [who originally commissioned the piece] wanted the Statue of Liberty half way up her hips in water. In my original one, the base was still showing. Once again, it is speculation upon speculation when you talk about some of this stuff. This is probably as reasonable as anything. Left to my own devices, I’ll be a little conservative. For all I know, this is right.
The Sun Turns Into a Red Giant
From Miller: This one we know is going to happen. The Sun turns into a red giant about 3 billion years from now. I put a Mayan stele there just because I thought it would be funny to have the only thing remaining be something Mayan [given that the prediction that the world would end on 12/21/2012 was based on the fact that the Mayan calendar ends then]. The Sun has melted Earth down, and it is not even as big as it is going to get. The Sun will probably engulf Earth eventually.
A Gamma Ray Burst Cooks the Earth
From Miller: In this scenario, a star produces a gamma ray burst. Basically, it is a blast of high energy particles, almost like an x-ray beam. It would microwave Earth. These things have happened. At least one of the big extinction events, about 450 million years ago, might have been caused by one of these things. There is no telling when the next one will be; they just sort of happen. Yippee.
June 27, 2013
Deborah Bay was in a store that sells building materials in her hometown of Houston, Texas, when she saw a display of bulletproof plexiglass. A few different types of ammunition were lodged in the hard plastic to demonstrate the strength of the product.
“I thought it was intriguing,” says the photographer. “You could see all the fragments of metal. You could see the spray of the shattered plastic and then you could see the trajectory lines that were running through the panel of plexiglass.”
Bay did some research, talking with people and poking around online, to try to find some law enforcement officers who would create some similar plexiglass panels for her. She was about to give up when she found a willing group of professionals at the Public Safety Institute at Houston Community College. The officers shot several different weapons with a variety of bullets at panels of bulletproof plexiglass. The result was an array of beautiful explosions in the plastic—a static testament to an energy that was once violently kinetic.
From there, Bay photographed the plexiglass panels against a black backdrop, different colored lights cast on them, using a medium format camera with a macro lens. She calls her series of about 20 images “The Big Bang.”
“When I go in and start working with the camera,” says Bay, “it really does take me to another world.”
The patterns that the projectiles leave on the plexiglass on impact look like galaxies, stars and meteors flying through space. The more the photographer combs collections of images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, the more she sees the resemblance. It’s this intuitive leap from the macro to the cosmic that inspired the series’ clever name.
Of course, once viewers are brought back down to Earth with the knowledge of the actual subject, they can sometimes experience what Bay calls a “psychological tension”—that is, the unsettling contrast between the beauty of the images and the destruction that comes with a gunshot.
“As arguments about the right to bear arms fill the media, guns continue to fascinate and to repel—sometimes simultaneously,” says Bay, in a statement on her website. The issue hits home for her as a resident of Texas, a state with about 51 million
registered firearms or, as she notes, “two guns for every man, woman and child.”
“Only a small amount of imagination is needed to realize the impact any of these bullets would have on muscle and bone,” she says. “I just want people to think about what these bullets can do.”
“The Big Bang” series will be on display at Wall Space Gallery in Santa Barbara, California, from July 16 to August 25, 2013.