Nowhere does the line between art and science blur more readily than when we look to the stars. NASA has long been known to recognize the artistic power of space exploration, famously releasing a series of Space Tourism Posters to eager space- and art-lovers last year. Now, the agency has tapped into the imaginations of a range of multimedia artists to celebrate the James Webb Space Telescope, the observatory that will let us glimpse the ancient origins of our universe.
Twenty-five artists were selected to preview the telescope (which launches in 2018), and create works inspired by it. With its sail-like, 21-foot, gold-plated mirror – and mission to peer back in time – inspiration came easily (see the full collection of works here). One of the chosen artists, Shapeways community member Ashley Zelinskie, conceived of a work, “Exploration,” that represents the symbolic and literal achievements of the telescope.
To create the piece, which was 3D printed with Shapeways, the artist 3D scanned the arms of John Cromwell Mather, astrophysicist, cosmologist and Nobel Prize in Physics laureate and Amber Straughn, astrophysicist and Deputy Project Scientist for JWST Science Communications. Then, Zelinskie added a scan of her own arm. She combined the three limbs with a representation of the telescope’s mirror, with its 18 golden, hexagonal segments.
The arms stretch from the surface of the mirror, reaching into the unknown in a symbolic representation of the search for knowledge. “Art asks people every day to think about abstract ideas and opens a doorway for creative thinking,” the artist explained. “My hope is to apply this open-mindedness to science and, in this way, be better equipped to take in the universe in all its vastness and mystery.”
The surfaces of Mather, Straughn, and Zeleskie’s outstretched arms are made up of a lace-like lattice of symbols. They represent the Friedmann-Lemaître-Robertson-Walker metric – the solution to Einstein’s field equations of general relativity. This metric, which describes the universe, is joined by the formula that describes a parabolic mirror. Dr. Mather summed up the symbolism of the pairing with, “One might say we build one (the telescope primary mirror) to test the other (Einstein’s equations).”
Dr. Amber Straughn framed “Exploration” in appropriately poetic terms: “Astronomy by its very nature drives us toward the unknown…there’s something uniquely human about wanting to find out about our surroundings, to explore our world, to discover new things. That’s what astronomy is all about.”
“Exploration” and the other works inspired by the JWST will be on display at the Goddard Visitor Center in Greenbelt, MD, from March 3 to April 16, 2017.