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At This Art Exhibit, The Artists Are Also Astrophysicists

Scientists studying dark energy are amassing thousands of images of galaxies and exploding stars. Now, they’re finally getting an art show.

“Space time is accelerating between galaxies faster and faster,” says Brian Nord, an astrophysicist and research associate at Fermilab, the particle physics laboratory in Illinois. Nord and his colleagues aren’t just astrophysicists, though–as a new exhibit based on their scientific work proves, they’re also unlikely artists.

Nord is explaining the concept of dark energy, an unknown energy form that has the opposite gravitational pull to ordinary matter. It’s hypothesized to be the reason why the expansion of the universe is speeding up–a discovery made by two teams of astronomers in 1998–though scientists still haven’t been able to prove it.

That’s the goal of the Dark Energy Survey: an organization made up of 120 scientists from 23 institutions around the world (including Fermilab) that hopes to uncover the nature of dark energy by measuring the entire 14-billion-year history of cosmic expansion.

To do this, the group must survey the Southern Hemisphere, which spans about 5,000 square degrees of sky–for reference, the moon takes up about 3/4 of one square degree–using an extremely sensitive digital camera mounted to a telescope called Blanco, located high the Andes Mountains. Over the course of five years, the camera will take between 100 and 200 photos a night to capture around a billion galaxies and exploding stars, all filed away for DES’s scientific research.

Now, a very, very small percentage of those images are on view at Fermilab’s internal art gallery. Culled from the massive archive of images taken over the two years the survey has existed thus far, the images show unprecedentedly large and clear views of spinning galaxies and passing comets. Although they were taken for highly specific scientific observation, they’re also completely stunning–which is why they’re now being hung on gallery walls to be appreciated as art.

For Nord, this intersection of art and science is a natural one. “There has been an interplay [between art and science] throughout human history,” he says. “There’s this cycle of: art inspires the sciences that informs our understanding of universe that again influences art.” Plus, he reasons, “art changes how we see the world in a similar way that science does.”

Since it opened inside the lab in 2012, the Fermilab Art Gallery has been showing all genres of art, but in recent years the curators have sought to bring in shows that bridge the gap between art and science. With so many fantastic images from the Blanco telescope right at their fingertips, they figured, why not show them to the public?

Nord is quick to point out that the images in the show are not in the same form as the ones that they use for science. The images taken by the DEScam are in black and white. When Nord and other scientists use the images for scientific research, they look at them under a filter of red blue or green so that they can see aspects of the galaxies that you can’t see in normal photos. They are looking for patterns of galaxies in the sky and how they change over cosmic time.

By contrast, all three filters are layered on top of each other in the images used in the exhibition, showing the formations as they would look if we saw them from a spacecraft. Most of the images are galaxies that are close to Earth, and therefore look similar to galaxies as they’re commonly imagined. Some have great big blue swirls that look like the Milky Way, while others look like interconnecting rings. In a few if the formations, colloquially called “bar galaxies,” you can see a cluster of stars in the shape of a bar running vertically through the center. One particularly surreal image shows a close-up view of an enormous alien green comet caught on camera in the split second it was passing by Earth.

Also included in the exhibition are a few time-lapse videos that Nord took while he was on duty observing the telescope in Chile. Each night, there are three DES scientists on duty to monitor the telescope, so Nord travels there for his turn at least three times a year. When asked if he considers the telescope’s photos art, he says yes without a second of hesitation. To elaborate, he recalls the nights he spends in the Andes studying the sky: “When you see the Milky Way plastered across the snow globe of our planet, you realize your personal size and size of humanity,” he says. “I’m thousand miles away from home I feel like I’m at home in a larger way.”

All Images: DES Collaboration via Fermilab

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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