January 22, 2015, by Brigitte Nerlich

Nanoscience, images and technologies of visualisation: A space odyssey

From_the_Earth_to_the_Moon_Jules_VerneThis blog post is a story about an intellectual and collaborative adventure that should be all too familiar to academics. However, opportunities for such adventures may sadly be disappearing in an era of impact driven research. It is a story of how enthusiasm, curiosity, serendipity and collaboration can lead to unexpected and joyous outcomes. At the end of this post, one of the main protagonists in the story, Chris Robinson, will tell us a bit more about this adventure!

Jules Verne

For over 30 years I have been fascinated by the use of images and illustrations in science and in the popularisation of science. In the early 1980s I wrote my Staatsexamensarbeit, something like an MA thesis, about the changes in illustrations that have accompanied Jules Verne’s scientific adventure stories from early editions in the 1860s to later ones in the early 20th century. I have previously written a blog post about some aspects of these images and the ways they make science both public and visual.


In the early 2000s I became fascinated by how real and fictional images of nanoscale objects were used to create visions of nanoscience and nanotechnology. In 2005, the centenary of Jules Verne’s death, I published an article on nano-images in the journal AzoNano, focusing in particular on nano-submarines in the tradition of Jules Verne’s Nautilus and on fantastic voyage imagery. At the same time I began to correspond with other people interested in nano-images, such as Chris Toumey, a cultural anthropologist who had begun to write about these matters before me and, overall, has written a lot more about this topic than I have. I can especially recommend his wonderful commentaries on nanscience and nano-images for Nature Nanotechnology. In the years that followed we met at various conferences and became part of a circle of colleagues, organized by Rasmus Slaattelid, interested in nano-images and the aesthetic, ethical and epistemic issues associated with their use.  I also came to know a friend of Chris Toumey’s, namely Chris Robinson. He is a visual artist who is interested in the role and meaning of science and technology in contemporary culture and how it assists in and influences decision-making.

A conference

After meeting in various places, such as Montreal, Paris and Darmstadt, we all finally met up for a workshop funded by the Centre for Advanced Studies here at the University Nottingham in 2010. We then successfully applied for a European Science Foundation grant together with Andrew Balmer and Annamaria Carusi, which allowed us to hold an international conference on ‘Images and visualisation: Imaging technology, truth and trust’ at Norrköping in Sweden in 2012. This year, finally, we managed to publish a selection of papers that emerged from this conference as a special issue for Leonardo, a peer-reviewed academic journal published by the MIT Press and covering the application of contemporary science and technology to the arts and music (it contains an article by Phil Moriarty from the University of Nottingham on “Visualising the ‘Invisible'”). This package of articles is entitled ‘Technologies of Scientific Visualization’ and is edited by Chris Toumey, Chris Robinson and myself, but it would never have seen the light without Chris Toumey’s enthusiasm and perseverance.

An email

Once the papers were published, Chris Robinson sent us an email which made me sit up and think something like: ‘Mon dieu! De la terre à la lune!’ (From the earth to the moon) As readers will know, this is the title of one of Jules Verne’s most famous novels, published 150 years ago in 1865, about an attempt to fly to the moon. The email said: “Many thanks Chris, With both your permission, I am going to include this package in a project I am working on, Moon Arc – a small museum to be placed on the surface of the moon, with Carnegie Mellon, Astrobotic, Space X, and NASA – The Google X prize. Best wishes, Chris

The Moon Ark project

I immediately emailed back and asked for more information and this is what I found out. There is a ‘Moon Arts Group’ at Carnegie Mellon University which has set itself the task of landing art on the moon. Or more precisely: “The Moon Arts Group envisions creative ways of establishing a link between the Earth and Moon, advances the presence of human culture in space, and facilitates never before realized opportunities for art and exploration. In 2015, Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute will send a rover to the Moon in competition for the Google Lunar X Prize. Legendary roboticist and founder of Astrobotic inc., Red Whittaker, has invited a team of artists to join this expedition.” Chris Robinson is now part of that team. See below!

Space rovers

As readers of this blog will also know, I am fascinated by space exploration and have written about spacecraft and space robots, such as Curiosity, Rosetta and Philae. I can now add ‘Andy’ to this collection. Finding out that our work on technologies of scientific visualisation might make it to the moon as part of the Moon Ark’s cargo is quite wonderful (for more information read this poster). We are, of course, not yet sure how all this will play out and whether and how our collaborative work that encapsulates our collective imagination and scientific endeavours will eventually end up on the moon or not……


However, be this as it may, reading Chris’s email made me engage again in ‘wonder’, another topic that I have explored before and that is at the core of the Moon Ark mission: “We need to reawaken the sense of sublime wonder fundamental to our relationship with the Cosmos. Through collaborations between artists, scientists, and engineers we find, in our creative process, ways to overcome the separate languages, logics, and methodologies of our disciplines.”


And now Chris Robinson will tell us a bit more about this adventure! Before working on nano-images Chris’s work focused on light installations and space development – from giant to minuscule, and he trained to be a citizen observer on the space shuttle before that program ended with Challenger disaster. The NASA advisory council once recommended that visual observers, educators, and print journalists be the first to go. He received an award from the Planetary Society for his early artist work in zero gravity – exploring what an artist might do given such an opportunity, and his name is on a disk on an earlier Mars lander.

Museum on the Moon

Chris Robinson, School of Visual art & Design, University of South Carolina

Human kind has always had a creative curiosity and interest in exploration, pushing the questions of who we are and what is out there, often most effectively manifest in art. Few things exemplify that as well as the immensity of space and the minute nanoscale. This project combines the logic, magic, and allure of both.

In conjunction with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Space X – NASA’s leading commercial provider for delivery to space, Astrobotoc, and the Studio for Creative Enquiry at Carnegie Mellon University, the Moon Arts Group is preparing to fly a very small art museum to the moon, with subsequent related museum exhibitions throughout Europe. The Apollo 12 mission was said have taken a small chip with images by prominent artists including – John Chamberlain, David Novros, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol, but since the it was placed covertly on the leg of the landing module, there is no formal verification of the 1/2 X 3/4 “ ceramic wafer. A new generation of artists, designers, and engineers has taken up the cause, this time with acknowledged and full authorization.

On our flight, the lunar rover, as it comes to the end of it’s power and work, will house four small cylinders – roughly 2” in diameter – and provide some ongoing protection from the elements. The cylinders will contain four artificial diamonds – ether, moon, metasphere, and earth, and eight magnetic discs. I am curating and participating in the nano portion which will house both graphic images and sculptural molecules – the words always seem funny when used in conjunction with the nano scale as the quantum realm changes so much of our Newtonian expectations.

There are many restrictions and restraints on what can fly, how well it will stand up to the elements, and what materials are best suited to meet those needs and also be capable of storing the artwork. Each module will contain two magnetic discs with images, music, poems, and more, as well as metallographic images and objects placed on and in the wall of the cylinder. The very small scale of nano particles, while profuse, are rarely constrained by normal materials, as even the densest materials are broadly permeable at that scale. We have tested a wide variety of designs and materials; interestingly PLA used in 3-D printing and some of our initial prototypes apparently effectively stand up to the rigors of space, and titanium turns out to be too heavy as payload and is extremely expensive.

The artists represented will be an indicative sample of the art being made in that realm with iconic images such as Don Eigler’s electron corrals, along with examples of more populous nano images, sculptural objects, and samples from biotech – including real and nano blood, which is proving very productive in a variety of indications such as traumatic brain injury, stroke, sickle cell anemia, and emergency blood for remote locations and the third world where refrigeration and long term storage may not be practical.


Image: Early cover of an English translation of Jules Verne’s novel From the Earth to the Moon, Wikimedia commons.


Posted in images and visualisationspublic engagement with sciencepublic participationresearch impactSciencespacespace explorationvisualisationwonder