Crossroads of Art and Astronomy

Title: Astro-animation – Art and science education case studies

Writer: Laurence Arcadias, Robin HD Corbet, Declan McKenna, Isabella Potenziani

First Author Institution: Maryland Institute College of Arts

Status: Accepted for publication in Animation, Process & Production Practice [pre-print available on arxiv]

Astronomy is a complex scientific endeavor as well as a deeply human experience. The night sky connects us all with a collective heritage, making astronomy uniquely placed to address the perceived gap between science and society.

The intersection of art and science (commonly referred to as STEAM) is used primarily to deconstruct dangerous narratives around science. Art highlights creativity and innovation, both of which are necessary for the practice of science, and emphasizes individual interpretation. Misconceptions surrounding science portray it as an objective truth independent of the individual. This is not an accurate representation of the scientific process; science is an attempt to understand the world around us, which can change on an individual level. It is a collection of different experiences from the natural world that more accurately represents science.

The authors of today’s paper describe the application of STEAM specifically to address the science-society gap. Their work consists of an astro-animation class taught at the Maryland Institute College of Art that pairs art students with NASA scientists. This collaboration is mutually beneficial, enabling students to flex their creative prowess and improve their scientific literacy while also enabling scientists to further develop their science communication skills. Programs such as the one described here are important efforts to make science more accessible and open the field to more voices.

Why Animation?

Just like how looking at the night sky can be a fiery experience, animation can evoke emotions in many people. Therefore, animation is an easy-to-digest method for introducing intimidating concepts. While most visualizations produced by NASA aim to be as informative and accurate as possible, the animations discussed here provide room for interpretation; the goal is not to provide definitive facts, but rather to invoke the meaning behind the facts.

Figure 1: “Sneezing” by Tenzin Lhamo. The artist described their interpretation of the Big Bang as a sneeze, starting at a fixed point and streaking in all directions. Figure 2 on paper.

Class

The program lasts 15 weeks and is taught jointly by an animator and an astrophysicist. The first few weeks consist of practicing animation skills on broad scientific concepts, before moving on to specialized research areas in astronomy.

NASA scientists come to give lectures on their research topics (i.e. black holes, dark matter, supernovae, etc.). From these scientists, the students were given a mentor and a specific topic that would be their final project. Most of the time is devoted to students working on their animation for their particular project. The final screening of the film took place at NASA’s GSFC Visitor Center.

Animation

The resulting animation reflects the different ideas and experiences that are generated from the students. Many animations feature metaphorical interpretations of scientific concepts, linking complex ideas in creative and engaging visuals.

Figure 2: Various metaphorical stills are used in animation. Figure 13 on paper.

#1: Neutron star followed by paparazzi on bar crawl; #2: Documentary-style animation representing neutrinos, gamma rays, and protons as birds; #3: An astronaut who travels in the craters of the moon as a cowboy trying to find electricity to power his Moon barn; #4: The highly anticipated sequel to The Martian, this time taking place on Titan with Matt Damon playing a dog; #5: A human astronaut and a robot compete to find water on the moon; #6: Bat scientists discover a mysterious cult inside the moon’s lava tube.

Animation is also growing to reflect a diversity that is often overlooked in the STEM field. Animations show scientists from diverse ethnic backgrounds, orientations, and genders. This is useful in deconstructing harmful stereotypes around practitioners of science. Starting in 2014, the authors noticed that featured scientists grew more diverse throughout the year. The authors argue that this is potentially because artists are exposed to more scientists and feel comfortable portraying scientists without stereotyping older men.

Figure 3: The evolution of representation in animation. Figure 14 on paper.

#1: The scientist was Einstein, a white male figure; #2: The older white male is in the middle, but this animation showcases diversity in age, gender, and ethnicity; #3: Cool pirates; #4: An ambiguous scientist who exhibits humble behavior; #5: An African-American female scientist also exhibits humble behavior; #6: A mother who is both a parent and a scientist; #7: A great cowboy; #8: Cute anthropomorphic animals; #9: An Asian-American scientist from the 80s/90s.

Artists are also encouraged to be as experimental as they want to be, leading to animation in a variety of media. This allows students to better express their personal opinion about the material they are studying.

Figure 4: The evolution of representation in animation. Figure 16 on paper.

#1: Paint on glass; #2: Watercolor; #3: 3D and stop-motion; #4: Paper scissors; #5 and #6: 3D; #7: 2D and stop-motion; #8: Digital breaker; #9: Cutting the wax layer.

Scientific Accuracy vs Creative Freedom

A common concern with any attempt at science communication is the fear that scientific concepts might become muddled or distorted by offering simplified representations. For a program like this, it is important for students to maintain their artistic license while also maintaining scientific accuracy. In general, it is considered that strictly educational animation is at a higher risk for students to misinterpret scientific ideas; more inspirational pieces leave room for interpretation.

Figure 5: “Donut Hole” – Puglisi, Whang, Wang ’15. The artist interprets a trip to the Donut World from a black hole; a scientist says that since we don’t know what’s on the other side of the black hole, any interpretation doesn’t matter! Figure 17 on paper.

For the scientists involved, the program puts them in a position where it is necessary to express their research in terms that are understandable to people who are not in their field. This is an important skill for any scientist, as it is key for practitioners to understand their role not only in their field, but also in the wider society. However, scientific research often relies on co-financing agreements. Being able to communicate with the public is necessary to ensure that the scientific research carried out reflects the needs of today’s society. And to communicate, we must be able to speak the same language.

Conclusion

Overall, the authors found that the program was effective in engaging students with science and was well received by the participants. On program reflection, Declan McKenna notes that “my animations directly benefit from methodical and deliberate idea processes, such as those governing scientific processes, to improve accessibility.” This testimony highlights the ways art and science can intersect. The authors expressed interest in continuing the program and looking at new methods of integrating astro-animation into informal learning environments. Their goal involves finding new ways to engage with people who are not interested in science.

Programs like these present interesting ways to reduce the science-society gap. It enhances scientific literacy in individuals while also enabling scientists to develop the skills necessary to interact more directly with the public. In taking these steps to make science more accessible, we can continue to gain a diverse voice in science and increase public confidence in scientists.

Astrobite edited by Luke Zalesky

Featured image credit: UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center

About Ciara Johnson

Ciara Johnson is currently completing her master’s in Communication Science at the University of Leeds. He has 5 years of experience working with planetariums and science centers, and has a research focus on co-production in museums with underrepresented groups in STEM.

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