Hi I’m Marley, the astronomer here at the Space Centre.
If you have visited us here before, you probably remember our Cosmic Courtyard. If you haven’t, let me explain without giving away too much: there are lots of brilliant infographics, videos, and interactive sections to let you discover more about space and the universe in which we live. But we at the H.R MacMillan can’t take all the credit for creating these beautiful items. The true credit goes to the people who live at the intersection of art and science: science illustrators and visual artists.
Science requires a lot of different skills, but one of the most important ones is effective communication. Scientists are experts at communicating with other scientists—they accomplish this through words, equations, and graph. Scientists also work with illustrators and artists to develop illustrations to communicate their research to the public.
You’ve probably come in contact with a scientific illustration without even realizing it. If you’ve ever opened an educational book about the human body, or birds, or plants, the images in there were probably scientific illustrations. Dinosaurs? Scientific illustrations. Images from the Hubble Space Telescope? Processed by visual artists.
Images from Hubble do not come down from the telescope brightly coloured. Hubble works like a digital camera, but one that can capture more detail than a digital camera you might own. It takes black and white images of the same object but in different wavelengths of light. Then visual artists like Martin Kornmesser and Luis Calçada at the European Southern Observatory assign the right colours to the right filters, and combine all the different images to get the spectacular images you’re used to seeing from Hubble. The image below illustrates the process. [insert photo]
Hubble colour image construction
Sometimes though, astronomers investigate things that we are not able to see, not even with our telescopes. Things like exoplanets and gravitational waves. The information scientists collect would be more like what you would expect to see in a graph or a plot. Scientists have confirmed some 4400 exoplanets (as of September 2021), but none we’ve been able to get a detailed photo of. The images you see of exoplanets on NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program are all done by scientific illustrators and visual artists, who take the information we do have, and create an idea of what the exoplanet may look like.
All we have of gravitational waves are the signals that LIGO and other interferometers receive. LIGO converts these signals into sounds called “chirps” that we can hear. These signals tell scientists a lot, but do not show what gravitational waves do to the things they interact with. Scientific illustrators work with scientists to turn the data into visuals. Take a look at three different ways of illustrating a collision of two black holes. Which helps you understand the event the best?
But these creations do not all have to be done for scientific accuracy, they can be created to inspire the imagination. Right now, we have an art exhibit by two artists who wanted to use gravity to create art, and to explore scientific concepts and some of the implications of Einstein’s theories. Through their art they explore questions such as what is on the other side of a black hole? Are they doorways to someplace else?
Art can be created to explore scientific concepts, like gravity, but can also be done just using images! Check out a cross stitch of the cosmic microwave background by Jessica Campbell, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. There is an active community of artists inspired by astronomy. The International Association of Astronomical Artists has a whole gallery of artwork that people have created – and not all of them are scientists! So, take a look at some of the activities that I’ve found below and try to experience science in a different way.
Discover more about people, scientists and illustrators who create science-inspired art.
Learn from scientist and artist Dr. Aaron Gronstal about how to turn science into comics.
Read this short interview with two visual artists and their work in representing the universe.
Find your next vacation destination with these space tourism posters and read about how artists and scientists worked together to develop them
Discover more about scientific illustration.
Read this short National Geographic article about how artist Charles Bittinger helped imagine the universe almost 100 years ago.
Discover the top 11 NASA illustrations in this short Popular Science article
Try your hand at scientific illustration. Can you draw the Orion spacecraft or the SLS rocket?
Create your own art inspired by science.
Create arts and crafts inspired by images from the Landsat satellite
Participate in this month’s NASA Space Place Art Challenge.
Try your hand a colourizing your own space image (note: this is a more challenging activity).