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10.07.08

Artists and Astronomers 'Observe' the Universe Together

Our current view of the universe, to quote Albert Einstein, is "not weirder than we do imagine, but weirder than we can imagine." That said, we have no choice but to observe the universe through human eyes and brains. How can we even start to make sense of it?

One answer might be to call in the artists. For thousands of years, people have used art to explore ideas that humble, confuse or even frighten us. A new exhibition opening in Pasadena continues this tradition, bringing artists and astronomers together to create original pieces of art.

Called "Observe," the exhibition is the culmination of a yearlong collaboration between two Pasadena institutions -- the Art Center College of Design and NASA's Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology. Beginning Oct. 10, visitors to the Art Center's Williamson Gallery will be challenged to stretch their imaginations as infrared observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope are visualized through the minds of five contemporary Southern California artists.

"Science is bringing us spectacular discoveries that torque our everyday perception of reality. Things like black holes, multiple universes and time distortions challenge our human-centered culture and beliefs," said Stephen Nowlin, director of the Williamson Gallery. "This is an exhibition about the newly unknown."

Dan Goods, an Observe artist and a visual strategist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, was fascinated by the idea that light from distant stars and galaxies travels for years before reaching us. "Some of those stars died thousands of years ago, and they only exist in the light that is still on its way to our eyes," he pointed out.

Goods built a clock that spans a large room. Spheres throughout the room represent the hours. The spheres all look the same at the entrance, but like stars in the sky, they are actually different sizes and distances away. Speakers on the spheres play back sounds from people in the room, distorted and delayed by random time increments. This distortion represents a phenomenon called "redshift" in astronomy, in which light is stretched to longer wavelengths as it travels through space. "It's like the stars are talking to you," Goods explained.

Other projects include an interactive video installation by Daniel Wheeler, which invites visitors to "send" data all over the world to create an abstract collage of images; and a planetarium-like room filled with changing projections of the stars by Lita Albuquerque. George Legrady used a projected laser to make patterns representing all the pointing commands that have been sent up to Spitzer in space. And Lynn Aldrich created a fake-fur wormhole -- a theoretical tunnel through space and time -- that people can crawl through.

"I was amazed by the serendipities that cropped up," said Michelle Thaller, outreach manager at the Spitzer Science Center. "Lynn Aldrich's furry wormhole is a great way to represent the weird, almost chaotic nature of other dimensions!"

"I've always thought that Spitzer's images were spectacular, but working with the artists has made me look at scientific data in a whole new way," she added. "Data out of context can become art."

Observe opens to the public on Oct. 10 as part of ArtNight Pasadena, a weekend of art around town sponsored by the Pasadena Arts and Culture Commission. Opening-night hours are 6 to 10 p.m. The exhibition will run though Jan. 9, 2009, ushering in the International Year of Astronomy, a yearlong celebration of the 400th anniversary of Galileo and the first telescope.

JPL manages the Spitzer mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.