.::..Nicholas Sagan..::. …:.::..artworks and experiments…::.:…nicholassagan@gmail.com

a comet with no tail

So after going to see Star Trek (for a second time…yes, nerd) I turned on the television to see a rebroadcast of a C-Span2 program called Book TV.  In fact, the TV was left on this channel so the program was the first thing I saw.  This particular episode featured the director of the Hayden Planetarium, Astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Man.  This guy is intense in the most positive and interesting ways!  Seriously.  If there were any person who could keep a 10-year-old’s interest while discussing how the dwarf-planet Pluto got it’s name and the long-sorted political history of planet naming, it is definitely this guy.

He is one of the people responsible for my resurgent interest in science.  The last book he published was called “Death by Black Hole” and it has some very nice sections about what actually happens to a person who might unfortunately fall into the event horizon of a black hole and other phenomena (although it is not limited to celestial instruments of death and dismemberment).  His point: science is interesting and fun! The great astronomer Carl Sagan once said, “If you are in love with something (or love something) you want to shout out loud to world proclaiming that love!”  Of course, it is entirely possible that he meant the love of his life and mother to his children Ann Druyan.  Then again, the phrase can be applicable to anything that one may fall in love with.

It is very much more than obvious that Tyson is in love with science, specifically astronomy and astrophysics.  He’s the director of the Hayden Planetarium, for Jupiter’s sake!  He had BETTER have a love of this stuff!  But he also primarily considers himself an educator and the passion he shows for the subject is transferred to the intently listener with the smallest show of effort.  It’s infectious.

At the end of the lecture (which you should check out here) there is a Q-n-A session with questions like “Do you get depressed thinking about all the ways the cosmos can kill us?” (Answer: No) to “Who is/was your inspirational public face of science since you are now such a person?” which was my favorite.  He has me hooked well before the answer but to hear the why of why he is here, doing what he is doing and loving what he is doing floored me.  He said, unequivocally, that Carl Sagan was his inspiration.  When Tyson visited Cornell as a prospective student, Carl welcomed him and even offered him a place to stay during a blizzard.  Since that moment, Tyson has made every effort to respond to letters and emails from students.

Before that moment where I realized the chances of gaining an audience with him are decent (at least a small, “I like your work!” interaction of the sorts) I have been thinking about the relevance of the this area where art and science intersect.  Again, I feel that this is where I want to be, right in this blur of ideas between the two fields.  I think it is interesting that Neil deGrasse Tyson sees his public positioning as a result of the public’s demand to have access to and understand these scientific concepts that continue to arise.  The controversy of the planetary status of Pluto notwithstanding, he had already had the public’s attention and got even more people interested.  Like I said, he is a big part of my resurgent interest in scientific endeavours.

The demand for this science from the public represents a shift in culture, towards the continuing development of this Fourth Culture (originally conceived of as the Third Culture by CP Snow in the late 50’s and more recently the Fourth Culture by Jonah Lehrer), a culture where the apparent divides between seemingly disparate disciplines disappears.  Tyson is one of the leaders of this Fourth Culture, whether he is aware of it or not.  As previously obscure scientific ideas and processes become more pervasive in culture, the more those ideas are subject to artistic interpretation and thus can be caught in a sort of “culture loop” of dissemination of ideas, reinterpretation, republication, reingestion and so forth.

With these types of culture loops comes some pretty serious issues concerning A) the public longevity of these scientific principles and B) the public’s perception of the validity of those ideas.  This, of course, is an ongoing issue because block-buster movies that defy current science and the like are being produced and set the public’s understanding 2 paces behind scientific progress.  Back to Tyson, he addresses this problem in “Death by Black Hole” by describing his outing to a sci-fi movie where he finds himself critiquing all the little bits that the movie producers got wrong.  Don’t mistake me on this; I do it, too.

But this sort of cyclic reinforcement of scientific ideas within aspects of culture allow for serious artistic contemplation and reinterpretation.  This is really the point I am trying to get at.  More and more artists are taking on predominantly scientific ideas or adopting various forms of scientific methodology and inquiry towards the end of creating works of art.  Visual artists have held this thread for some time but with the emergence of technology driven art (interactive, installation, new media, etc) the potential for the exploration of these scientific ideas has exploded exponentially.  There are individual artists and artist groups who are even using the same technology to create works that are found in labs across the world.

One group in particular, Semiconductor Films (check them out here), was actually the artist-in-residence at Space Sciences Laboratory (SSL) in Berkeley, CA.  Not only did they produce films that collected images and video from solar astronomy of the past 50 years, but they also did studies of magnetic fields, satellite data feeds and interview-based films that address science and art.  What is crazy to me is that during the course of the development of my last installation work I came across their work, at a point towards the end of development for the last inception of the piece.  They were doing what I was doing!  Almost…I was creating random programming that used real audio samples taken from the cosmos in an effort to address deep time in conjunction with images abstracted to represent celestial bodies.  They had taken actual footage from NASA’s solar astronomy archive and created video pieces where the audio was based on the varying luminosity of the changing imagery.  Really fucking cool stuff.

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