Improv and Exoplanets

Artist rendition of exoplanet Proxima b

My dad’s career as an Air Force officer included working with NASA as an astrobiologist during the early days of the space program. I’m an improviser, interested in science, and specific to this post, astroscience and the search for exoplanets.

Exoplanets are planets that orbit around stars other than our sun. The first exoplanet was discovered in 1992. Now nearly 5500 have been identified! The closest star to our own solar system, Proxima Centauri, about 4.25 light years away, has at least two exoplanets.

Astronomers don’t “see” exoplanets – they’re too far away. The presence of an exoplanet is measured by dimming and “wobbling” of the light of the star that the exoplanet is passing in front of. Measuring “light curves and data points” provide astronomers “abstract representations” to deduce the existence of an exoplanet.

A crucial element in the scientific process of exoplanet research is to then take these abstract representations and create images of “places.” “Place suggests an intimacy that can scale down the cosmos to the level of human experiences.” For this, visual artists are brought in. 

The illustrators employ skills and a mindset in their work that sound a lot like skills and mindsets of improvisation!

1) Show, don’t tell! Scientists at the NASA Exoplanet Archive understand that to engage the public, they need images to accompany the press releases announcing the discovery of new exoplanets.  The artists take the data and make images of places the public can “imagine its way onto.” 

2) Tell the story! Make the work specific, create a real environment to, as one of the artists put it “show (the viewer) a picture that’s at least starting to be as cool as what you saw on the ‘Guardian of the Galaxy’ trailer.” And the way they do that, in improviser terms, is to:

3) Over accept! The artists’ process is based on “educated likelihoods.” They are given some vague data about the exoplanet – “it’s this big, it weighs this much, and the star is this temperature.” Their job is to take big leaps. “We know that whenever we do an artist’s concept, it will be wrong” and yet they get the image in part because they “overcommit to what they know.”

In short – “to boldly go where no man (sic) has gone before”, you got to improvise!

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