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What role can art play in science? An unexpectedly important one, says NASA’s Michelle Thaller. Art is being used by NASA to communicate its discoveries and concepts and can help people learn science.

Michelle Thaller: Fernando, I think you’re doing something that has been a real passion part of my life and that is that you’re combining science and art.

And I think it was a mistake in our culture to ever separate the two. There’s a lot of mythology around that. People often talk about, for example, “right brain” versus “left brain” and a lot of people don’t realize that there’s really no scientific evidence of that at all; it’s more of an analogy than anything else. There isn’t one part of your brain that’s logical and scientific and another that creative and artistic.

And I find that there’s as much reality and profound exploration of the universe that can be done through art as is done through science. I think they are different ways of humans exploring and pushing the boundaries of what we know and what we can do. And one of the things that I’ve been very proud in my life is collaborating with artists trying to actually add science into their art.

And at NASA we actually have many, many artists that work for us. Some of them do things that are fairly routine in the sense that we have lots of data coming in from the Hubble Space Telescope and the artists may help us get the images looking beautiful, help us frame them right. We may have data coming in from earth science satellites just in the form of numbers, and artists help us make that into beautiful maps and simulations that help us understand the atmosphere.

But it might surprise you to know that we actually have conceptual artists at NASA too. Artist that aren’t tasked with dealing with imagery or data, but they’re asked simply to interpret discoveries through their art. And one of the most amazing people at NASA is a man named Dan Goods of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and you can find him on the Internet and he’s done TED Talks on this as well. And Dan simply is a conceptual artist trying to make people understand viscerally how profound some of the discoveries we make are. He’s done art installations about planets around other stars.

There’s one that gets me every time, it’s very simple: you walk into the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and there’s a floor to ceiling series of just clear plastic columns and they have little LED lights inside them. And Dan has linked this—in real time—to when we are uploading instructions to our spacecraft in space and when we are downloading the data, and you actually see that as lights, little lights in the LEDs in the columns moving up towards space in a beautiful pattern.

And then when we’re downloading data say from a spacecraft around Jupiter, when we’re receiving it you see the lights coming down as new information comes down from space.

And as you walk around during your day at JPL you see the pulse of discovery right in front of you, and it’s real, it’s actually linked to the commands coming to and from the spacecraft. So it makes you pause and think about what you’re doing, and this is to me the real core of art to make you stop, question the reality around you, think about what’s really going on and how you can view it differently.

So, many organizations take this very seriously: there are workshops, there are conferences on the intersection of arts and science, there’s even a new acronym. You may have heard of the acronym STEM in education, which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. And a lot of people across the discipline across the world are trying to change that to STEAM, science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. They’re not separate. They should be presented as a whole.

People learn science differently. People’s minds work differently. Art can help people learn science. So there is really this wonderful synergy that can exist between art and science. So there isn’t a single institution I can point you to in terms of these people specialize in that, but know that there really is a very serious inclusion of art in the science that’s going on right now and that needs to continue, I think even for the survival of science. We have to make something relevant to our culture and relevant to people, and art is going to help us do that.