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Making a Career of Combining Art and Science

The gorgeous space images NASA shares combine science with the art of data visualization. Ask Science chatted with Dr. Robert Hurt to learn how he made a career of bringing celestial objects to life visually. 

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #328

I’ve heard you describe your job as “Astrovizicist” … what kind of things does an astrovizicist do? 

I must give kudos to Frank Summers, a colleague at Space Telescope Science Institute, for coining that term and sharing it with the community. The idea for that is basically, someone coming with an astrophysics background but whose specialization is trying to help communicate physics and astronomy through the visual media. And that can range from taking data sets that are observed by telescopes like the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope, which is a mission I’ve been working on for over 15 years now, and rendering those as the imagery you see in news stories and on webpages. 

But it can also include much more artistic angles where you’re attempting to describe something that maybe isn’t intrinsically obvious in the data. Maybe you’re studying an exoplanet and all you have is a little lightcurve that shows slight changes in brightness over time, which through interpretation we can figure out is a planet of a certain size of a certain distance from the star. But at that point, it’s really switching over to the artist toolkit and doing illustrations of artwork grounded in scientific understanding, but trying to fill in the gaps with art to give something very compelling that communicates the ideas we want to get across in the story.

It seems you are actively applying your degree in astronomy to the visual work that you do.

You know I really, really am. At some point I decided I didn’t want to go down the traditional academic route of being a tenure-track professor at a university doing a research program, mentoring students … there are various things that didn’t feel like what I really wanted to do. But I still wanted to be in science. I still wanted to use my degree and work in capabilities that really facilitate the whole community doing science. And I did that for a number of years after a couple of post-docs.

But I had this wonderful opportunity when Spitzer was ramping up. We were going to have a science center at Caltech, and one of the things people had recognized is that we needed someone to help tell the visual side of that story. So, being able to speak the language of astrophysics, of radio astronomy, infrared astronomy, to read the papers, it helps me to get a shortcut to what I know we want to try to explain visually in the data.

Even the simple act of working on an image that we’re trying to do a picture of, at least coming in with the astrophysics background, I can make really quick calls on what’s real data, and what are artifacts we want to remove from the image. It’s judging … I don’t want to put anything into the image that’s not real or meaningful or leave something in the image that is not astrophysical in nature that could distract people if it’s still there. You don’t want dust on the camera lens, if you will, when you are trying to show a cool picture. 

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Please note that archive episodes of this podcast may include references to Ask Science. Rights of Albert Einstein are used with permission of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Represented exclusively by Greenlight.

About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.

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