Part scientist, part artist, Robert Hurt turns the unseen into images we can relate to.
Whenever NASA announces the discovery of a new exo-planet — a planetary body outside our own solar system — and media sites everywhere trumpet it as “another Earth,” Robert Hurt is the artist who translates that often overblown (or vague) sound bite into an image of what the new planet may look like. It’s the sort of work that used to be done by artists such as Don Davis, Don Dixon and Rick Sternbach, to name a few. And Hurt started out as they did, working with brushes and paints, before delving into 3D software, basically “anything that would run on a Mac,” he says.
Hurt currently uses Lightwave 3D and Photoshop in his work as a “visualization scientist” for the Spitzer Space Telescope mission, which was launched in 2003 and trails the Earth in orbit around the sun, detecting infrared radiation and examining hidden regions of space, including the center of galaxies, stellar nurseries and extra-solar planets. Hurt studied chemistry, plasma physics and astronomy at UCLA and now works out of an office in the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech — “My dream job,” the artist says. His gig involves talking with scientists about the information the Spitzer has gathered about new planetary objects and creating artwork that puts that information into a relatable context for the public. “Because I have a degree in astronomy, it facilitates when I communicate with the scientists — we can really quickly jump right to what we want to show in the art,” Hurt explains. “They can quickly communicate to me what they’ve done and what the limits of a given object or region we’ve observed is, and I can ask them for the takeaway idea we want people to get from the image — which isn’t always what the researchers come in to say they want illustrated.”
Hurt is an unapologetic Star Trek and Babylon 5 fan who says his sci-fi TV habit (along with video games such as Mass Effect) very much affected his career choice — and vice versa. After some collaborative work with the science advisor for Star Trek: Voyager during its final seasons, Hurt visited the show’s art department (where former astronomical artist Sternbach worked with Michael Okuda) and got some of his work on the air. “They were going to be passing near the galactic center on the show, and we had just released a beautiful image of the galactic center seen in the infrared, which is important because the dust between here and the galactic center blocks our view of it, and in the infrared you can actually see through almost all of the dust. So I told them we had an image that actually shows what the center of the galaxy looks like, and I went back next week and brought them a full-resolution image of it, which wound up on Seven of Nine’s astrometrics display for most of the seventh season.”
Hurt traces his love of science back to Star Trek’s incredibly positive portrayal of Spock as a scientist — and the 1979 Trek feature film influenced his decision to combine artistry with science and technology. “Andy Probert, another designer I dramatically respect, designed that refit of the Enterprise so that when you looked across that model, everything on it connected with something physical going on,” he says. “You could tell where the officer’s lounge was because there were windows at the back of the model that connected to the shot inside looking out the windows. Everything about that model and the design reflected an engineering concern. That level of design work always inspired me and helped drive me in this direction where I’m getting the opportunity to not only leverage visual communication but help get people excited about science. I think it’s really important to get people thrilled about the fact that we can understand what’s going on in the world around us. So Star Trek, science fiction, all of that stuff built up and gave me this incredible passion for trying to get other people excited about this, and that’s why I love what I do.”
“The Orion nebula is likely the most popular nebula in the sky, but it is an art gallery all by itself. On the Spitzer site, we have released six different views of this one nebula, each combining light from different parts of the spectrum in different ways. My favorite, though, is this one that blends Hubble’s visible light view of hot gas [blues and greens] with Spitzer’s view of the warm dust [yellows and reds].”
“Cometary dust around Eta Corvi suggested to scientists a system where newly formed planets could be experiencing frequent collisions with comets, a process that likely delivered much of the water and gases to our young Earth. Capturing this in artwork let me visualize a comet-filled system drawn from images of smaller comets in our own solar system. The impact event is a bit overexaggerated in magnitude, but I think it helps to convey more quickly the idea at a casual glance.”
“The spectrum of light is so vast, it is hard to imagine what a tiny sliver we can see with our eyes. I enjoyed the opportunity to render an image that spans much of the spectrum, here taking data from NASA’s Great Observatories [series] spanning X-rays [Chandra], visible light [Hubble], and infrared [Spitzer] to show the spectacular structure of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A. Since each part of the spectrum is tied into different kinds of physical processes, the vivid colors are not only appealing visually, but tell a deep science story.”
“I was just trying to show the revised size and orientation of the central bar in the galaxy to highlight the newly published paper by my colleague Bob Benjamin. By combining the most recent results from many researchers, we converged on the structure seen in the 2008 image. A number of features in this image, extrapolated from surrounding structure or based on symmetry, have subsequently been found in actual data. That means we did a good job on our homework the second time around!”
“This remains one of my favorite Spitzer infrared images of a star-forming region. Between the subtle variations of color in the dust and the evocative V-shape carved into the cloud by the light from young stars, I have always felt this could be a gallery piece.”