Ron Cottrell is a retired aerospace engineer who’s now dedicating his time to being a docent at Kitt Peak National Observatory. One of his favorite hobbies is photographing the Sun with the help of a special solar telescope. After winning an award for his first entry to The Art of Planetary science, Cottrell has continued being a part of the show. This year, he also won an award for his piece, Juno’s Van Gogh.
How did you come up with the idea for your painting?
There’s a spacecraft orbiting Jupiter, named Juno, and it has been sending back marvelous images of the clouds. It gets really close up to get images of the cloud activity. NASA posts these images on the web. It’s all the public domain, so you can do a lot with those. There are some restrictions, but in general, it’s available to the public. I saw this one, and it was reposted by two guys who processed the raw images. It was beautiful. When I looked at it, Van Gogh’s Starry Night just popped into my head, because if you look at his painting, he has all these swirling motions in the sky. That’s what this looked like. So, I processed it a little bit more and put it on a canvas, and then put brush strokes over it so it looked like real art, instead of just a picture.
Could you tell me a little more about that connection to Starry Night?
To me, it was what I’m seeing. What I’m seeing is exactly what a brilliant impressionist painted. When, in the 1800s? I don’t know exactly when Van Gogh was around. It looked like the paint strokes were identical to what he was doing. To me, that was the magic of this picture. It just looked like an artist sat down to paint, and it’s a little abstract. If you’ve ever seen Starry Night, wow, it’s amazing. He did that, and everybody looks at it, and it’s worth a hundred million dollars. But it’s just amazing that a spacecraft could take a picture, and it looks like something that a brilliant artist did centuries ago.
What do you think was the purpose of an exhibition like The Art of Planetary Science?
I just love how nature presents itself as art. When we explore space, that’s what we’re finding. I think that was the philosophy of the art show, to change what looks to be boring scientific things into artistic presentations. It’s hard to even get people interested in photographs. That was the brilliance of the lady who started this whole art show. This is going to be her legacy at the university, that’s for sure. That was the whole idea, to attract a different kind of people—people that would be more interested in art than science, that see the art as science or representing scientific things.
Do you think that scientists might have difficulty communicating their work sometimes?
Well, yeah, some of it’s very complicated. What NASA has done is make sure that the images are available to the whole public. Now, do we as the general public understand all the details in this? No, it’s very complex. With the Hubble telescope, it just looks like beautiful displays of artwork to me. Now, the science that makes those images, or makes those actual physical entities look so majestic is complicated. I think the general public will appreciate just the magnificence of it without understanding all the details.
Do you think that the art show has accomplished that goal of sharing the beauty of space?
They have. In fact, they did the first year they started the show. More and more artists have started to enter things after that first year. We had, I don’t know, 230 pieces of art this time? That’s a lot. It’s really caught on. Some of my stuff that I’ve made is also displayed at the Kitt Peak visitor’s center. It just makes what could be a boring thing—especially in black in white—more attractive. Just having texture on a canvas attracts people, rather than a photograph. There are some people who, one year, had complicated equations of orbital motions, and they made a piece of art out of it. It was just brilliant. It communicates with a broader audience. They get a big crowd every year.
So, art can help attract people and make them more interested in science?
Or not even that, it can just spark their interest in the wonder of the universe. Just, appreciating that we have devices up there that can do this, and it’s amazing. This little spacecraft that’s circling Jupiter is closer than any other spacecraft has been. I was told by one of the students at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory that they weren’t even going to put a camera on it. It was a last-minute decision. They have other instruments on it collecting data that the average consumer, or even average scientific person, would have a difficult time understanding what in the world they’re talking about. Images like these have kept the public clued in to space programs. And, when you convert those images to look like pieces of art, that’s even better. You get a broader audience.
Talking about getting a broader audience, how do you feel about things like citizen science?
The way astronomy is going right now is, it’s establishing very large databases. The citizen scientists can have access to those databases and explore, right on their computer, whatever their motivation is. For example, there’s a story out there right now where a teenager became an intern at NASA in Maryland. He started exploring one of the databases on extrasolar planets—planets around other stars—and he discovered a new planet that all the scientists had missed. It was his second or third day as an intern. It’s all there in their data, they just don’t have enough scientists to examine all their data.
Are there any downsides that you can see?
We can only afford so much outreach, but usually people come. I don’t know about any science outreach organization where nobody shows up. They’re always very popular, especially if you bring the students in, like elementary kinds and so on. It’s very popular, and it does communicate. A lot of kids or adults will get into a related hobby, you know, buy their own little telescopes. The first thing is to make people aware that we’re doing marvelous things in space. You can’t force people to get interested. I think we’re doing a good job in our country of communicating scientific results, if you can create an image of that result. When you get down into mathematics and atomic physics and all that, of course not. You have to be very trained, very specialized for that.
This interview was conducted via phone | Image “Juno’s Van Gogh” courtesy of Ron Cottrell and The Art of Planetary Science