'We're all Earthlings': the scientists using art to explore the cosmos

Can art advance science? Researchers on the hunt for extraterrestrial intelligence are using videos, music and more to go beyond the final frontier

Since 1984, the scientific research institute SETI has worked with some of the brightest minds on our planet: astronomers, solar system dynamics experts, exoplanet detection specialists, astrochemists. All of them are on a mission to decode the universe’s mysteries – but has one area of expertise been overlooked?

Jill Tarter thinks so. She’s the chair emeritus of SETI – whose name stands for “search for extraterrestrial intelligence” – and the inspiration for Jodie Foster’s character in the movie Contact. Tarter believes scientists should look to the art world to help solve some of their biggest problems. “Art gives people an opportunity to think about bigger-picture ideas or think about them in a new way,” she says. “It can make people think differently about who they are, where they are, or questions such as: where do we come from? Where are we going? Is there anybody else out there?”

After meeting artist Charles Lindsay at an event a decade ago, and seeing some of the photos he had produced, a realisation struck her: perhaps artists could help scientists be more creative. “We have a hard time in SETI – and in the search for life beyond Earth – trying to imagine what we can’t imagine. We don’t really know what life somewhere else would be like. We don’t know what technology somewhere else would be like. But here, I was looking at a piece of art that made me think of life and biology. And it dawned on me that maybe an artist is somebody who could help us envision things we hadn’t thought of before.”

Mining the Moon installation by Charles Lindsay.
Mining the Moon installation by Charles Lindsay. Photograph: courtesy of SETI

Of course, art and science have long coexisted. As Lindsay points out, Leonardo da Vinci was both a great scientist and a great artist. “Yet somehow during the 20th century,” he says, “these disciplines became silos and more specialised.”

Lindsay and Tarter hatched a plan to work with a SETI researcher and create art that combines astral research with creative output. “The scientists’ work can benefit from the presence of artists and then the artist’s work can be influenced from close interaction with scientists,” Lindsay explains. The result is an artist-in-residence programme at SETI that brings creativity to the lab. It’s designed to not only broaden views, but also make challenging scientific concepts more accessible to the public. In 2010, Lindsay became the first artist to take up residence at SETI. During his tenure, he worked with SETI’s astronomer Laurance Doyle, along with colleagues from UC Davis and the Alaska Whale Foundation, to create Code Humpback, an installation that explores ideas about encrypted signals and interspecies communication through whale vocalisations, morse code, and “two- and three-vector ocean surface interference patterns made in the Pacific”. Because many people don’t spend time poring over studies in scientific journals, the project helped the scientists present work to the public in a captivating way.

Watch a video about CODE Humpback on Vimeo

Since Lindsay’s inaugural run, artists at SETI have produced sculptures, textiles and even a glass-etched recreation of the Kepler space telescope’s field of view. Film composer Felipe Pérez Santiago, who is working with Tarter, to crowdsource sounds from around the world that he will use then use to write a soundtrack, which he hopes will eventually be launched into space. “I want to create collaborative music that celebrates all our cultural diversity, but also shows that we are a single species,” says Santiago of the Earthling project. “I want to send a message of who we are now as a species, as earthlings.” For her part, Tarter hopes the symphony will head to Mars. “I would love for Earthling to go with Elon Musk’s first crew to Mars,” she says, “so they would be taking with them a musical piece that represents all of us on Earth.”

Hexalite by Zeinab Alhashemi.
Hexalite by Zeinab Alhashemi. Photograph: Nik Eagland/Glasshopper

The institute’s current artist-in-residence is Zeinab Alhashemi. She’s teamed up with Mark Showalter, an astronomer who helped run Nasa’s Cassini mission to Saturn and its New Horizons mission to Pluto, because they shared common interests. “She’s an artist interested in geometry and motion and I’m a scientist interested in geometry in motion,” says Showalter. The result of their collaboration, which will be shown at Expo 2020 in the United Arab Emirates, is a kinetic sculpture of two spheres, one in steel and one in corten metal, the latter material designed to rust. The spheres move clockwise, counterclockwise, and in random shapes until they meet to become one sphere again. “Through my conversation with Mark, I decided that the movement of the spheres will be very subtle,” says Alhashemi. “The only way to notice the movement is if you would stay next to the sculpture for some time or you leave it and come back to see that the shape has changed.”

Zeinab Alhashemi, the current artist-in-residence
Zeinab Alhashemi. Photograph: courtesy of SETI

Working with Alhashemi has helped Showalter push beyond his usual modes of thinking. “It exercises a different part of my brain,” he says. “It allows the right and left side to work together. On the one side, it’s a very technical and mathematical process, and on the other it is very creative and sort of unbound way of thinking about what we do.”

Joining Alhashemi are three new artists-in-residence: Xin Liu, an artist and engineer, who hopes to explore time suspended in water; Jordan Holmes, an engineer, spoken word artist and musician who is interested in interactive storytelling environment; and Alfred Darlington, AKA the electronic artist Daedelus, who plans to create a map using spatial audio. The programme is also getting a new advisor, Dorka Keehn, who also sits on the San Francisco Arts Commission.

Tarter has big ambitions for those works of art and the stories they tell. “Ultimately, my goal is to change everyone’s perspective to this more cosmic perspective of seeing how we fit into the universe and seeing that, when compared to as-yet-unknown life beyond Earth, all of us are the same,” she says. “We’re all Earthlings.”


Melissa Locker

The GuardianTramp

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