Astronomer ties art inspiration to cosmological data

By Campus Reporter

An immense telescope being built in the Cerro Pachón Mountains of Chile, which will house the world’s largest digital camera and gather about 20 terabytes of data per night, was the subject of a colloquium arranged by the Science & Mathematics Department Sept. 21.

The main functions of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope outlined in the presentation, held at the Ferguson Auditorium in the 600 S. Michigan Ave. Building, are to detect anomalies in space, help scientists better understand dark matter, create a map of the observable universe and improve understanding of the Milky Way.

Pangratios Papacosta, associate chair of the Science & Mathematics Department, invited Lucianne Walkowicz, astronomer at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, to the college to speak about the functions and benefits of the telescope at the first of three colloquiums scheduled throughout the semester.

“We have a number of courses we offer that deal with works of astronomy,” Papacosta said. “Many of our students in these classes have been invited to attend this talk and learn from it.” 

Walkowicz said she has been a part of the LSST project for 10 years and acts as a community manager among the various groups working on the project, ensuring that groups are aware of the functions and benefits of the telescope. 

Although Walkowicz is an astronomer, she is also an artist. She has created oil paintings, comic books and sound installations, some of which were inspired by scientific findings.

 “Learning about science, more generally, is interesting from an artistic point of view because both artists and scientists essentially do the same thing,” Walkowicz said. “They take observations of the world, and they try to identify what interesting questions or aspects of that world they can highlight. Astronomy does it with the universe, the arts do it with human experience.”

In the presentation, Walkowicz encouraged students to work with data produced through scientific findings—like the information that will be gathered from the LSST—for artistic projects of their own.

Individuals who browse the data may not only benefit the artistic community, but the astronomy community as well, Walkowicz said. The LSST will compile such a large amount of data that scientists will not be able to interpret it in its entirety. Because the data will be accessible to the public, any viewer could make a discovery not yet seen by scientists, she added.

“I didn’t know the [data] was all public information. It’s definitely something I’m going to [look into],” said presentation attendee Evan Frank, a senior theatre major, who added astronomy has always been an interest of his.

The remaining two colloquiums this semester will be presented Oct. 19 by a mathematician from the University of Vermont, and Nov. 16 by a forensic scientist from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“We always try to say to students, ‘Sometimes your education is beyond the classroom,’” said Papacosta. “It’s in other things, in art galleries and museums. [This is] one of those examples of learning out of the classroom.”