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Patt Morrison Asks

Dan Goods, JPL's science seer

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory's 'visual strategist' is willing to try just about anything to make abstract science into something you can see.

February 20, 2013|Patt Morrison
  • Dan Goods is the resident "visual strategist" at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Dan Goods is the resident "visual strategist" at NASA's… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

When artist Dan Goods arrived at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, they gave him a six-month shot. In May, he'll have been there 10 years as JPL's "visual strategist." He glued soda bottles to the roof of his Taurus to create music on an m.p.h. pipe organ. At JPL, his "Out There" sign (recycled computer-box parts) conjures the infinite in a meeting space and plaster hands he installed in the library hold curious objects. He once drilled a hole through a grain of sand to demonstrate the size of our galaxy, and then put that grain of sand in six rooms of sand that represent the universe. Anything to make abstract science into something you can see.

You came to L.A. for the arts education and stayed for the science. How did that happen?

I was born in Alaska and grew up in Oregon and lived in Seattle. L.A. was the last place on Earth I'd imagined I'd be, but I wanted to go to Art Center College of Design. I told my wife there were three things I could imagine doing: starting a teahouse, joining the Peace Corps or going to Art Center. Coming down the 210 there's a sign that says "Art Center College of Design," and the next one says "NASA-JPL." I went, "Wow, this is where I want to be!

Were you a science guy in school?

I had like a 2.98 [grade point average] in high school. I slept through my math classes.

It sounds like you got the science education here that you didn't get in high school.

I ask a lot of questions. I've always been interested in science because it has big crazy ideas that can change our lives and our perspective on ourselves. I get together with the scientists and they tell me what their mission is about. And I'll say, "Is this what you mean"? I'm always trying to uncover the essence of something. Once you find the essence, you can play with that concept. If I can figure it out, I can show other people about it.

What sort of projects have you done?

One is called "Hidden Light." It's about finding planets around other stars [inspired by NASA's Kepler Mission, which is searching for planets in habitable zones]. It's like trying to find a firefly in front of a spotlight if it's in New York and you're in L.A.

Stars are big and bright, and the planets you're looking for are small and dim. I have a super-bright projection against the wall, and it looks like a sun. Then I have a really dim movie projecting [planet images] at the same wall. People see this bright, pixelly sun; people walk up and inside their shadow it reveals the dim projections.

It's about trying to find a dim light in the midst of a bright light. I love the theme of seeing the unseen.

You created a piece that's touring called "Beneath the Surface" that was inspired by NASA's ongoing Juno mission to Jupiter, which isn't so much a planet as a giant gas cloud.

You walk into this room that represents the surface of Jupiter. You hear thunder and lightning — you don't see lightning but you hear it. There are giant lightning storms on Jupiter. The mission is going to figure out how deep the storms go.

I put a lot of infrared lights underneath a cloud made with tap water. You place an ultrasonic mister in water and it vaporizes the water into a beautiful mist. Cellphones can pick up infrared light, and you can see the lightning storm through [the cloud with] your cellphone. The scientists came down and stayed for half an hour watching how the clouds worked. I had to, like, get out of here.

Your work isn't illustration. It's about the concept.

Over the past 50 or 80 years people [did] futuristic drawings of space. That inspired a lot of the people who are here. They were all under their covers looking at comic books, and now they're here making it happen. I'm creating different experiences.

Everyone should have the opportunity to have a moment of awe about the universe. If I can create that, then I feel I've been successful.

Scientists are always particular and careful about accurate descriptions of their work. How do they react to your interpretations?

I'm always a little nervous, but I've always had a good reaction. Sometimes their inner geek comes out: "How did you do that?" These are huge problems these people are working on, really difficult and technical, and sometimes they forget about the big picture. So when I show them something, they're like, "Yeah, that's why I'm doing this." Now people come to me when they want something from a different perspective. They say, "Oh, we should just go talk to Dan."

What do you have coming up?

Juno is going to fly past Earth [to get to] Jupiter. It's called gravity assist. The day Juno makes its closest approach before being slingshotted [by Earth's gravity] out to Jupiter [is] Oct. 9, 2013. I'm brainstorming with others on an event for this moment. Juno is going to orbit Jupiter 33 1/3 times. [I'm] imagining a musical project related to Juno's 33 1/3 orbits.

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