Los Angeles

Beautifying Data with SoCal Art Schools and the Jet Propulsion Labs


Every day, science gifts us with potentially world changing discoveries, but the problem is, much of it dwells on the abstract level, leaving many of us scratching our heads. Thankfully, there are artists who like ever-curious Alices follow the White Rabbit that is science down the rabbit hole, taking us along with them for an eye-opening ride.

In Southern California, Pasadena has successfully honed its reputation as a nexus for art and science, not least because of enduring partnerships between Art Center College of Design (Art Center), the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and NASA-funded Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

Recently, the three institutions hosted "From Data to Discovery," a symposium on the emerging field of data visualization. The symposium kicks off a summer-long program that would cross-pollinate Art Center and Caltech students to work on creating artistic expressions of JPL investigations -- anything from wind turbulence patterns to brain networks. As the summer heat rolls in, data viz specialists from around the country will drop by the city to share their projects in the hopes of further building this community.

Though perceptually we often imagine a yawning chasm between the two disciplines, Dr. Scott Davidoff, Manager of the Human Interfaces Group at JPL says the gap is really a matter of perspective. "Artists and scientists all have practices that involve research and creativity," he said during the conference's opening remarks. "Despite varied backgrounds, we are all driven by questions."

Perhaps no better product of this triad of connections exists than Dan Goods, JPL's Visual Strategist. He is an Art Center graduate, who stumbled into science by interning at a Caltech laboratory. During the summer of 2002, Goods found himself SURF-ing -- that is, undergoing the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship at Caltech. His task was to build a digital atlas of a biological mouse, at a time when Google Maps was just a glimmer on the internet.

Dan Goods | Photo: Carren Jao.

That summer changed the trajectory of his whole career. "I was going to go work for a big design or ad agency," says Goods, "but I realized that my heart wouldn't be in it as much as working with people working on scientific questions."

It was then that he got to work with David Kremers, a conceptual artist in biology. Kremers had devised a way to layer MRI data and transform it to an Impressionist-like painting, without compromising the information embedded within it. "They could put all those images together and it would look like a painting," says Goods. "If you were trained in it, you could see how all those pieces of data interact with each other."

With renewed direction, Goods set about finding a place for himself at the nexus of art and science. But, back then, no one in the scientific community knew what to do with him. It was only when he secured a tour of JPL with Art Center's then director Richard Koshalek did opportunity come knocking. Dr. Anthony Freeman, who led JPL's Center of Excellence for Space Mission Architecture and Design, gave Goods a six-month trial period where he would be free to experiment.

Report covers for scientific papers, designed by Goods. | Courtesy of Dan Goods.

Six months turned into ten years and counting. Goods' work is a constant challenge to distill science down to its essence and create projects that ignite the public's imagination. Just these past few years, his projects have given the public a sense of how large the known universe is; what Jupiter's lightning-filled sky would be like; or how scientists go about finding a speck of a planet.

"I don't necessarily have a whole lot of great talents, but that one talent that I have is that I like to ask questions. I like to try and figure out what the essence is of something," says Goods.

He has learned that a great way to get to the bottom of a project is to ask scientists to explain simply, like they would to their mother. "After a while, they were able to explain just the essence of what they are working on versus all the technical details." Working with actual physical objects, his art gives form and shape to often-ungraspable ideas. To help his audience understand the enormity of the galaxy, Goods worked with a JPL division that specialized in building very tiny instruments. He had them drill a tenth of a millimeter hole in a grain of sand to depict how much of the universe we have discovered. Then, he filled six rooms with sand to show just how much of the universe is left for science to understand.

Goods had one tenth of a millimeter hole drilled into a grain of sand to illustrate how much of the universe we know of. | Courtesy of Dan Goods.

Courtesy of Dan Goods.

When NASA launched its five-year mission to Jupiter in 2011, Goods created "Beneath the Surface," which enveloped Pasadena Museum of California Art's Project Room in thick fog. He then synced computer-controlled security camera lights to the sounds of thunder. He asked visitors to hold up their cellphones to view this pseudo-celestial light show. Much like the Juno mission employs special detectors, visitors could view the lightning storms through their phones.

But Goods doesn't only create installations. His work has a wide spectrum -- from creating eye-catching report covers for scientific papers to space planning JPL facilities.

Once a lone artist at JPL, Goods now manages a group of four other creatives with backgrounds in product design, architecture, advertising, and special effects. They occasionally have an intern with them as well.

Goods' team has come up with spaces like the Mechanical Design Center where JPL teams come to brainstorm specific mechanical objects. "At this point, they are cutting metal and fabricating a spaceship," says Goods. As opposed to a more playful brainstorming facility, the room his team created is more controlled and refined. Past fabricated parts are hung on the walls. Goods' team even repurposed a Mars Rover base plate into a handsome base for a glass desk.

Goods' group functions much like a creative agency within JPL. "People who want to do something a little unusual or want to communicate in a way they haven't done before -- they come to us."

The original Mars Rover base plate, which Goods repurposed into a base for a glass table. | Courtesy of Dan Goods.

Mechanical Design Center.

Mechanical Design Center.

Top Image: Visitors at the Pasadena Museum of California Art interact with Dan Goods' "Beneath the Surface" project. | Courtesy of Goods.

About the Author

Carren is an art, architecture and design writer and an avid explorer of Los Angeles. Her work has been spotted on Core77, Dwell, Surface Asia, and Fast Co.Design. You can find her online and on Twitter. 
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