When Brenda Huettner was little, her great aunt Sissy taught her how to crochet, among other things, and so Huettner’s always loved doing artistic things. Much of her career was as a technical writer, and now that she’s retired, she’s continued participating in science-related activities by becoming a NASA Solar System Ambassador. Her work, Temperature Scarfs, won first place in data category in The Art of Planetary Science exhibition.
How did you come up with the idea to make these scarves?
It was really my first time submitting to a show. I was looking around online, and I saw somebody who was doing what they called temperature blankets. The idea there is, you pick your colors and every day when you get up in the morning, you check the temperature and you crochet one row for that day. You do it all year long, and at the end of the year you have this gorgeous, big blanket. I decided that I didn’t have time for something that big, so I made a scarf. I also said, I’m not going to do one row a day, because who’s got time for that? So, because I have a little more technical background, I went and found the actual data.
What makes the scarves so special?
I liked doing it because it worked up quick and it says something without being blatant. When you say art, this is just one of many kinds of things I do. But those things don’t say something, they don’t tell a story like the scarves do. I don’t call myself an artist, but other people I talk to do. These are just things I do because I like them. People have said, oh, I’ve got to show this to my grandmother, mother, whoever, because they crochet too, they could do that too. And, they could, because it’s nothing but plain straight rows of single crochet, nothing fancy about it. Color changes are what’s telling the story, not the fabric.
You mentioned that you don’t consider yourself to be an artist, why is that?
If I spend two or three days making an absolutely beautiful PowerPoint that hand-holds people through how the sun works, and why the different layers do what they do, is that art? I think the word art scares people a little. How many people have you heard say, “oh, I’m not an artist,” or that they don’t do art? What about the whole line between art and crafts? What’s the line between them? If a carpenter makes a beautiful desk or coffee table, is that art? I think it is. That carpenter doesn’t say he’s an artist, he says he makes tables. If you ask him to define his art he’ll say, um, it’s a table. That’s how I feel. I make scarves. I think they tell a story; I think they’re beautiful. Other people like them and see the story. But, is that my art talking? I guess. Is that what I thought when I made it? No.
Do you think that people can be a bit afraid of science, as well?
I think it’s a fear. I think people are afraid that they’re not smart enough. Oh, I’m not a rocket scientist, I couldn’t possibly do that. That’s the classic thing, you know, rocket science or brain surgery. But, it’s not true. You start at the beginning. You’re not going to be able to jump into the most complex thing on your first try. It’s all a process. Start with the easy stuff, start slow. You don’t start by writing a novel, you start by learning your alphabet. It’s the same in science.
Do you think that events like The Art of Planetary Science can help alleviate that fear?
In the past years, there’s been this push for STEM education—science, technology, engineering and math. In the last, I’m going to say ten years or so, there’s also been a push to expand that to STEAM—science, technology, engineering, art and math. The idea is that science doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There are real people involved. Science touches our lives every single day. There’s chemistry in cooking, and there’s physics in riding a bike, and all these things are not separate. I think The Art of Planetary Science is trying to show that it’s not just your cup of tea or your bicycle, it’s the planet and the whole solar system. The larger universe, it has a beauty to it as well. Let’s celebrate that. I want to encourage people to want to learn, and to believe that they can learn it.
What made you decide to submit your scarves to the show?
The thing that encouraged me to submit these was that really encourage the data side of art. I think data by itself is beautiful and can be beautiful. With these scarves, I’m working on finding new data sets to make, for example, a scarf that shows incidents of measles over time. How far back can we go? In theory, the darker color would be more incidents of measles. You should be able to see—not that I’m telling people what to see—but the numbers should show lots of measles, and then none, and then more recently they increase again. If you’re just looking at ones and fives and zeroes and threes, you don’t get it as graphically as you do when you’re looking at colors.
Do you think that scientists can sometimes have trouble communicating their research?
I think that scientists in general don’t have training in communication skills. They could do it, but they don’t see it as part of their job, and that’s fine. Of course, there are exceptions. The scientists kind of resent, a little bit, when they have to write a paper, unless it’s an academic paper that will get them the kudos they need for their job. They don’t see other kinds of communicating as part of their job. They get way too much detail on just the piece that they’re experts in, and there’s just no context, you know? What I did as a tech writer was translate for the scientists and the engineers and the programmers. In a way, it’s a little harder because you still have to know all that stuff, then tell people why they should care. There are scientists who can address the general public. Most of the time, however, with peer-reviewed articles, you’re not writing for the general public, and that’s perfectly fine.
This interview was conducted in person | Image “Temperature Scarfs” courtesy of Brenda Huettner and The Art of Planetary Science