Tyler Meng is a graduate student in the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. His research focuses on debris covered glaciers, and how they can be buried by different types of rockfall. The hope for this data is to be able to compare it with satellite data from Mars, where scientists have been observing similar glaciers for years. He exhibited his piece, Beauty & the Basal Reflection, in 2019 at The Art of Planetary Science.
What made you interested in The Art of Planetary Science show?
The Art of Planetary Science has been a fairly new tradition at LPL, but I’m a fairly new student, so it was already going by the time I got here. I wanted to submit something because all the grad students were talking about it. I wanted to use some of the data that we’d collected from field work. This piece shows the profile of the bottom of a glacier that we went and did some research on. I wanted to add some colors, and I thought it also kind of looked the sky. It’s kind of crazy that some stuff that comes from beneath the ground can also look like things that we perceive as being in the sky. It’s aesthetically nice.
Do you think it’s difficult sometimes for scientists to communicate about their work?
I think it can be hard to sometimes gauge an audience and provide the necessary background information. I’m still just starting out my journey as far as presenting, but it is hard going to conferences and presenting to people in the same field community versus trying to broadcast the message to the whole array of humanity. It’s definitely tricky at times. That’s the cool thing about the art—it both looks cool and provides that hook, and visual stimulus. It still has that sort of meaning, on the science side. If it’s just numbers, it’s not always super interesting. It’s still important to bring it back to why it’s important for people. Just, knowing what happens in the universe, and exploration.
Is there a difference between communicating science through art versus, say, peer-reviewed research?
They’re both an art in their own way. Different audiences, I think, that’s something that’s important to consider. But yeah, data visualization in a peer-reviewed article is still really important to efficiently compliment the text in your paper. It’s important to have those visuals too. It’s something I had to consider in the piece I did for the exhibit. I incorporated a published scientific color scale that is now a standard for climate data in modeling and oceanography. I thought it was cool to be able to incorporate that. The paper talks about visualization and how to balance color scales and that sort of thing.
In your opinion, can art help people understand complicated science topics?
I think so. I think it’s important to still distinguish between artist depictions of things and assumptions we make from data. That’s still tricky. But, it’s definitely good to distinguish the data art from the space art in general. This year, a good example was a submission that had a few different Super Mario levels that were based off of different planets and moons. That’s really good to give a broad sense of what happens there, but as with anything, it’s good to remember that it’s still a video game. It’s funny that he’s swimming in an ocean and there’s giant whales on Mars, but that is still an ongoing debate in the community. Can subsurface water exist at the base of giant Martian glaciers? Anyway, it’s a cool way to raise awareness of what’s going on in the field.
So, it’s less about actual data and more about sparking people’s interest?
I think it’s a little bit of both. There’s some pieces that are results, like the scarves that were showing the increase in temperature over time. That’s real data just presented in a cool way. But, having really cool paintings of possible atmospheres and astronauts exploring stuff is still a good way to visualize and think about where we’re trying to go. It makes you think about some of the challenges involved, everything that has to go into it to make science happen. All the physics that are just a part of reality. Art is a good way to explore that, because reality is made of rigid lines sometimes.
Do you have any final thoughts?
Something that comes up a lot in the data is variability. Can we explain the differences that we’re seeing, or why it’s happening? The important thing is communicating science and then having the public absorb and trust the information. You have to be aware of that variability and kind of get rid of the idea of absolute certainty, based on a limited amount of data. It’s good to explore in your own way how to be acquainted with the science. As an artist, it’s a helpful path to understanding how it really affects people. That’s a key goal to learning about all these things, is to be able to help humanity. The art is a part of that.
This interview was conducted in person | Image “Beauty & the Basal Reflection” courtesy of Tyler Meng and The Art of Planetary Science