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News Link • Space Travel and Exploration

Best Jobs In Science: NASA Concept Illustrators Turn Raw Data Into Art

• Clay Dillow via PopSci
In a shared office on the southern edge of Caltech’s campus, Robert Hurt and Tim Pyle are making art out of science. Armed with the industry standards–Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects–it’s their job to break down the Spitzer Space Telescope’s complex scientific data into visualizations that are accessible and meaningful to the average viewer. But their artistic challenge is unique: Human eyes have never seen the objects they are creating. 

Spitzer’s infrared instruments return reams of data to Earth as the orbiting observatory gathers light from far reaches of the universe, light that is invisible to the naked eye. Imaging instruments capture some visual data that specialized software can cobble together into composite images, but often Spitzer’s most interesting discoveries come from regions of space too distant or obscure for the imagers to capture. In those cases, all they have is the spectral data; numbers and line graphs denoting wavelengths of light far outside the visual spectrum. Only a trained spectroscopist could look at that data and see the larger story it tells.

That’s where Hurt and Pyle come in. Dr. Hurt is the Spitzer Science Center’s visualization scientist. Along with animator and graphic artist Tim Pyle, it’s his job to convert the cascading numbers and EKG-like line graphs that are the core of Spitzer science into images and animations that make sense to those of us who can’t see the remnants of a supernovae or a planetary debris ring in the data. Those illustrations and animations end up everywhere from press releases to educational materials to the History Channel.

Click here for an annotated gallery of Hurt and Pyle's all-time favorite illustrations.

“We take data and try to make it visually interesting,” Hurt says of their work, which includes turning invisible light into colors that we can see, while employing a restrained brand of artistic license that must constantly balance hard science with aesthetic appeal. “You have to make these things interesting enough so someone will read your story. If your image is flat and dull, no one is going to read the text.”

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