Artist Alexis Rockman and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson debate the merits of hopeful images, science in pop culture, and how Hubble images mimic psychedelic art.

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Alexis Rockman, artist, examines how nature is portrayed. His art is in the collections of the Whitney Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, and London’s Saatchi Collection. He recently completed the mural Manifest Destiny for the Brooklyn Museum of Art, which depicts the future effects of global warming on Brooklyn. Additionally, he has co-authored several books, including Future Evolution with Peter Ward, and a monograph with essays by Stephen Jay Gould, Jonathon Crary, and David Quammen.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, is the director of the Hayden Planetarium and the American Museum of Natural History. His latest book, ORIGINS: Fourteen Billion years of Cosmic Evolution, co-authored with Donald Goldsmith, will be published by W.W. Norton and serve as the companion book to a 4-part miniseries premiering on PBS on September 20, 2004.

Alexis Rockman: To start, one of the things that I wanted to talk about was the fact that we’re both very much living our childhood dreams. We’re both urban kids. You looked up at the sky and wondered what was up there, and basically, that’s what you do for a living. I deal with my own version of “where do we come from and where are we going?” — but our days are very different.

You exist within the institutional framework of the American Museum of Natural History and the towering achievement of what is obviously a great twentieth-and hopefully twenty-first century collaborative institution for interpreting these question. I basically am alone in the room.

That’s why I come to the museum and the Rose Center — for inspiration. My mom used to work with Margaret Mead, and I grew up here. It shaped my perspective.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: You’re imprinted.

AR: Yes. Charles R. Knight and Chesley Bonestell were my heroes as a child.

NT: Of course, Hayden Planetarium was a major force for me, too. Growing up, I wondered, how do I study the universe from a city where you can’t even see the night sky?

The first time I saw it, I thought the Hayden sky was a hoax. I said, “No, there aren’t that many stars. I’ve seen them all.” All 14 of them from the Bronx.

AR: [Laughs]

NT: In some ways, I think we’re spoiled by the majesty of the images that come back from the Hubble telescope — and by other efforts to capture the beauty, the splendor, the grandeur of the cosmos.

Nearly all of what I’ve seen you draw has been in the tradition of the naturalist. You walk the surface of the earth and you draw what you see.

AR: I think that it’s important to remember that all those Hubble images are also highly subjective and interpretive — interpreted by the scientists who are involved in specific projects as well as by the people who are working on the computer imagery. It’s not as though a machine arrives at these pictures.

NT: In all fairness to the Hubble team, the interpretive part is the color choice. Other than that, the structural details of these images don’t change. But to an artist, of course, I presume color choice represents half, if not most, of the influence on the viewer.

AR: Right. I mean, those really come out of non-objective, twentieth-century modernism on some level. And I think that they also flirt with psychedelia.

NT: And what is pscyhedelic art if not for the choices of color? [Laughs]

AR: Exactly. Photography has had such a huge impact on the way we understand scientific iconography, but it has also had a huge impact on the way that art is perceived.

NT: Didn’t photography almost put the naturalist illustrator out of business?

AR: Well, yes and no. Until the ‘60s, the technology really wasn’t that mobile in the field. So an artist could go on a boat into the jungle with a pad and a pencil and basically do a pretty important job.

NT: But you’re not drawing animals in their habitats. Your paintings have a kind of Dali-esque dimension to them.

AR: Well, because — 

NT: Because we don’t need you to draw the animals in its habitat. Photographs can do that. We need you for another view.

AR: Well, obviously photography can add a lot to the way we perceive animals and plants, but it takes an illustrator to distinguish between a highlight and a yellow spot on a head. The photos can be very confusing.

NT: That’s an interesting point that I hadn’t considered. A photograph is a mere snapshot of an instant, whereas an illustration can average over different views and create the whole. A photograph freezes in time something that may not in fact represent the average view.

We had this problem with the Voyager probes to the outer planets. They sent back these beautiful close-up images of all of the textures and the turbulent patterns within the cloud layers of Jupiter’s upper atmosphere. And people declared, “Here’s what Jupiter looks like.” But no. That’s Jupiter at only one instant in time. Photograph it several days later and it looks different in detail, even if the over-all views are similar.

AR: Right. The scale can also be confusing. And that’s still true within the identification of plants and animals.

It’s interesting that you say that “Manifest Destiny” is a Dali-esque painting, when my perspective is that I treated it in the most sober and levelheaded way. You can the extent that I went to depicting this as a credible landscape, in terms of going to the topography and architecture of DUMBO in Brooklyn, talking to NASA, and then going to another architect to have him engineer seawalls that would be credible in an engineering context.

I try to use all of the ways we depict nature and natural history as content. I’m interested in credibility. What I’m after in this image is the disturbing part or the transformative part. That’s where the surrealism comes from — time travel in this case. But also I need it to be as credible as possible. Because basically, New York City, which is at seal level, is going to be underwater sooner rather than later. So the question is, How do I get at the information that has some credibility emotionally — especially in this cultural landscape, where we’re basically anti-intellectual? I’m not sure what percentage is of theological conviction in this country, but it’s something close to 80 percent.

NT: I think it’s closer to 90 percent.

AR: Which is absolutely horrifying. How do you, as an educator who needs to popularize this information, make complicated ideas at least interesting to the general public? It’s not that you’re preaching to the converted.

NT: I don’t find the high percentages of those who embrace theological systems to be horrifying. What’s horrifying is the subset among them that uses religious documents — revealed truths — as textbooks on nature.

And so the problems begin when people make assertions about how the world either is or ought to be, even when such notions, like a 10,000-year-old Earth, are in profound conflict with empirical investigations of the physical universe. That these debates continue into the twenty-first century, the third millennium, astonishes me.

A prevailing challenge for me when I wear my educator’s hat — and I think about this often — is that it’s not good enough to be right or even righteous in your views. You have to be effective.

No matter how beautiful the story of cosmic evolution is, if nobody is paying attention to you, then your message is of little or no impact. So on some level, the message needs to be tasty to the public.

AR: Heart and minds, so to speak.

NT: Yes. It’s got to be both of those. Without it, just go home and paint for yourself. Among astrophysicists, we know intuitively and empirically that at some point in life, everybody’s looked up. Everybody’s wondered what our place is in the cosmos. And I’m in a position to say, “This is what we just learned about our place in the cosmos.” So I’m simply feeding a preexisting hunger. I’m not creating the demand. It’s already there. And so in many ways, my job is easier because of this. Plus, there are some fun things to know about the universe. Some are even morbid things, like what happens to you when you fall into a black hole. Your body gets stretched and extruded through the fabric of space-time, snapping into segments as the tidal forces of gravity rip you apart. In my experience, people dig that. [Laughs]

AR: Yeah. Paradoxically, it’s not pictorial. It’s indecipherable pictorially. I can imagine painting that, but I don’t event want — 

NT: You don’t really want to go there.

AR: Right.

NT: But people can imagine it. I wrote a space show a few years ago called “Cosmic Mind Bogglers: A Tour of Astronomical Extremes.” One of the tours was a view of the Sun’s fate, the fact that in five billions years the Sun is going to become a red giant. As for the emotional fact…

The size of the Sun on the horizon in sky will get bigger and bigger and bigger. And there’s come a day where the sunrise takes up half the horizon, because the Sun will eventually engulf the orbit of the earth, bringing the oceans to a roiling boil. The oceans will evaporate away, and so will the atmosphere itself, leaving all life on earth a smoking cinder. We capture all this on the [planetarium] dome.

Over the months that followed, I got letters from parents saying their kids couldn’t sleep. They were scared to death. Scared into nightmares about those images. And so I thought to myself, They all the know the Sun. They see it every day. It’s one of the things you learn about in kindergarten. But when I look at the images you’ve got here, I find them to be more challenging.

AR: Yes.

NT: Not everyone knows that big jellyfish in your painting. Not everybody knows all the organisms you’ve drawn, especially the microscopic ones. So when you try to make a statement with those images, you don’t have the preexisting landscape on which to place it in the hearts of people who are looking at it.

AR: Right.

NT: So I think it’s a harder challenge to scare people with that real image of global warming than to say, “Here’s the Sun you know and love — now watch it die.”

AR: Right.

NT: Oh, and by the way, about black holes — I never tell people that black holes can kill you. I say that black holes can eat you.

That’s scarier to kids [laughs] because kids are more frightened about being eaten than they are about death itself. The Big Bad Wolf did not tell Little Red Riding Hood that he wanted to kill her. Instead, he simply wanted to eat her.

AR: Right.

NT: In the film Jurassic Park — I think I remember this correctly — everyone who dies was eaten, even though they all carried guns and other weapons. Nobody was shot. They were all just eaten.

AR: It’s primal.

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