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. 

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #328

Well and I have to admit that, when I first met you, it felt like meeting a real science celebrity because I had seen your name for years on all of these gorgeous space images that went along with NASA press releases. 

Aw, shucks!

True story. Now, it sounds like you have a lot to choose from, but what is your favorite part about your job?

I think the favorite part is the fact that the job has just been so incredibly diverse, so unexpectedly diverse, over the years. When I first started, I was really focused primarily on doing the imagery from the telescope: turning the data into pictures that we release. And that was almost everything I was doing. But over time more and more opportunities, more and more needs, came up to do illustrations or diagrams, things to try to explain a little deeper what was going on.

Eventually we started looking at the animations and graphics we were doing and realized we could even tell the story through videos and narration. I did a video podcast series called Hidden Universe where we would highlight Spitzer results over the years. 

And now it’s gotten so incredibly broad working with the Universe of Learning program, which is actually a collaborative agreement with NASA that brings together NASA’s astrophysics missions with other universities to do the outreach story of astrophysics. This has given us opportunities to do scripted videos with celebrities that are telling science in really fun and off-the-wall ways. Something that you are aware of. 

Can you tell us a little bit about your latest project?

Well, Sabrina, as you well are aware, the project that I’ve been working on most recently is something called The Habitable Zone. This was an opportunity to work with some celebrities from the science fiction series "The Expanse" to film a sci-fi educational video involving astronauts who are traveling from one solar system to another looking at exoplanets and trying to find something that is habitable. We are basically doing astrophysics and exoplanet education in the framework of a fun narrative and working with celebrities in the process which we hope will expand awareness of this. 

We have one episode out now. We are actually working furiously on the second episode that we filmed back in August. Hopefully we’ll have that out in the next couple of months or so.

I have to say this whole project largely came about because you did an immense about of work yourself getting all the logistics and organization and the actors booked and found the set that we shot on. So there’s a lot of your DNA in this project too. 

Thank you. It was definitely fun to use my astronomy degree to negotiate with Hollywood agents. 

Once again, not something that you expected was a job skill. 

Exactly. Well, thank you for taking the time to chat with me today and tell us about your exciting career. Listeners can check out The Habitable Zone at universeunplugged.org. I look forward to seeing the next episode when it comes out! 

Thank you, Robert.

Thanks, Sabrina. It’s been fun catching up.

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Ask Science’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science.

You can become a fan of Ask Science on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com

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Image courtesy of Robert Hurt via NASA/JPL-Caltech.


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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