Art and Science: What Does It Mean to be Human?


We recently had a chance to chat with Mark McCaughrean, the Senior Science Advisor in the European Space Agency’s Directorate of Science, about the ESA’s upcoming activities. Now, in Part 2 of our interview, we take a quantum leap into a discussion of how art and science can engage in reciprocal inspiration, and we also posed a few fundamental questions: Can we human beings actually deal with the knowledge that there are so many worlds of possibilities “out there” beyond our planet? How do we explain things to ourselves that we might never understand? And what about the representations of this unitary universe that we’ve rendered especially for the purpose of even being able to behold it with our own eyes—aren’t they actually just a falsified reality? These might also be the issues that artists will be coming to terms with in autumn 2016 when, under the auspices of the European Digital Art and Science Network, they get the extraordinary opportunity to spend a residency at the European Space Research and Technology Center in The Netherlands and at the Ars Electronica Futurelab. There are still a few days remaining until the application deadline: June 20, 2016. Go to and now put yourself in a position for huge things to happen:

Young Star

A star is born… Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA, K. Stapelfeldt (GSFC), B. Stecklum & A. Choudhary (Thüringer Landessternwarte Tautenburg, Germany)

You are a passionate photographer and an astrophysicist; at work you are also combining art and science. How do these two fields benefit from each other in your opinion?

Mark McCaughrean: I’ve always felt that this aesthetic issue is very important, as a complement to the science. My own personal science research has mostly been linked with imaging, taking pictures of the sky. And very often not at visible wavelengths, but in the infrared, looking at heat radiation that can come from very distant galaxies or young stars and planets in the process of being born. That’s the reason I’ve been involved in the James Webb Space Telescope for a long time because it’s going to be the most powerful infrared telescope ever built, and will allow us to get unprecedented views of these phenomena.

But because I’ve been involved in infrared astronomy my whole career, I’ve also had a longstanding interest in the aesthetics of how we represent how the Universe looks at wavelengths that are actually invisible to us. Obviously, that’s not really necessary when you’re doing science, measuring the brightness and spectral characteristics of objects to determine their physical characteristics, but you can go beyond and make pictures that are highly appealing to us as humans. At that point, lots of questions about the nature of reality and aesthetics are raised.


The Eagle Nebula, Credit: ESA/Herschel/PACS, SPIRE/Hi-GAL Project

Through both my scientific work and ‘normal photography’, I have an interest in images and what images mean, how people respond to images, how information and emotions can be transmitted. For example, the orientation of an astronomical image is essentially arbitrary, but you can rotate it through 90 degrees and suddenly it changes because it might resemble something with resonance to a human that it did not before. It does not change in space, but it suddenly somehow connects with humans and human experiences.

The same goes for colour. Typically we take images through three different filters at different wavelengths and combine them as red, green, and blue, to make something that make something we can look at visually. Obviously, if you take pictures at wavelengths that are invisible to humans, the best you can get are ‘representative colours’, some idea of what’s ‘redder’ or ‘bluer’ in a relative sense, without it being what the human eye would see.

If you move to the visible and use filters that match the response of the human eye, but the idea that ‘this is what you’d see if you were much closer’ can be misleading. That’s because the human eye isn’t very sensitive and many things in space are rather faint, only activating our colour-insensitive rods, making everything look grey. If we were to fly in a spaceship closer to the Orion Nebula, for example, it would get bigger, but it wouldn’t get any brighter (for the same reasons that a blank white wall doesn’t get brighter as we walk towards it, just bigger), and so even if we were right next to it, it’d still look grey to the naked eye.

So when we make colour images in astronomy, we use our telescopes to collect more light and image processing to balance everything out, to bring things above the threshold where our colour-sensitive cones are activated: essentially, we amp up the colours. To confuse matters further though, we often use very narrow filters that focus on strong emission from one or other spectral line from hot gas in a nebula. Putting three of these together can make a very striking image, but it’s a bad match to the rather broad response of the human eye, and thus not what we’d see.

Ultimately, the key question is why we find some of these images so aesthetically appealing, despite the fact that they’re not necessarily what we’d see if we were floating out in space. Part of this is because we’re stimulated by the intellectual wonder of it all, knowledge about the Universe that surrounds us, but equally because they strike a chord with human experiences of nature here on Earth, of the sea, fire, the sky, flowers, forests and jungles, wildlife, things that have nothing to do with space per se, but that are about us and our long evolution on this planet.


A section of the Orion Nebula. Credit: ESA/PACS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/IRAM

So art is a way to look at science from a different angle?

Mark McCaughrean: Often, scientific measurements can be made more easily understood by humans by using artistic techniques, and there’s a whole burgeoning field dealing with visualisation, many of them collaborations between scientists, data geeks, and artists. We’ve been working with some of these folk and it can be very productive.

But art in a purer sense can bring enormous insights to our visceral understanding of physical phenomena, concepts, and ideas. An artist might look completely sideways at the subject and say: “Yes, I understand, this is science, it is important to me because it has a scientific meaning, but can I say something else about it which is closer to the human experience?”

For example, we have been working with the artist Ekaterina Smirnova. She has made a series of painting of Comet 67P/C-G that Rosetta is flying around. They are not accurate in the sense that she has tried to replicate every crater, cliff, and boulder, but through her dynamic style, she has captured the essence of the comet in a very beautiful, almost emotional way. She has also linked her work back to the science in a conceptual way.

One of the key early measurements made of the comet was of its water content, to see how similar it is to water on the Earth, with the question in mind “could the Earth’s water have been delivered here by comets raining down on the surface?” You can study this by measuring how much heavy water there is mixed in with normal water, that is, water where one of the hydrogen atoms has been replaced by a heavier isotope called deuterium. There’s a little bit of that in every glass of water you drink and everywhere you drink the water, it is the same amount – whether you’re in Linz or Amsterdam or wherever. On Earth, it is always the same fraction.

But when Rosetta measured the amount of deuterium in the comet’s water, it was found to be three times higher. Ekaterina wanted to build that into her art, and so she bought some heavy water over the internet and added into her watercolour painting water in just the right proportion to simulate 67P/C-G water. You can’t see it in her paintings, you can’t smell it, and you can’t taste it, but conceptually, the art and science combine to make a statement, because we know it’s in there. That was an idea we did not think of it at all, but it came to her. That’s why we enjoy working with artists on these things, because they can bring a totally new, inspiring perspective.

You’ve spent many years with looking into the depths of space. What thoughts and emotions do you regularly have while watching these images from outer space?

Mark McCaughrean: (laughs) You know, like for most people, a job is a job and sometimes it’s easy to lose perspective and focus on the mundane side of it. But I find it important to step back and remember how lucky I am to be able to work in this remarkable field. Fortunately, I get to give many public talks about what we do, and that becomes evident from the response of the audience.

As an astronomer, I’ve seen things no human being has ever seen before. With my colleagues, I’ve made new discoveries, using new telescopes or a new instrument, or simply by looking at a previously unstudied place in the sky. Out of billions of people and over thousands of years of human history, knowing that you’re the first to see a new young star, a planetary system in the making, or a giant jet of high-speed gas spanning light years, brings intense intellectual and emotional pleasure, as well as a sense of mental vertigo as you try to imagine the distance, the power, and the timescales involved in these phenomena.

In fact, it’s close to impossible for humans to fully appreciate these things. To the nearest order of magnitude, we’re around a metre in size, 100 kilograms in mass, can move at around a metre per second, experience time on a second-to-second basis, and live about 100 years. We’ve evolved to cope with phenomena on these scales and thus it’s very hard for us to truly grasp the sizes, speeds, timescales, and energies involved at planetary, stellar, galactic, or universe levels. We can extrapolate, make comparisons, scale things up with maths, but in reality, we simply cannot appreciate these things.

Milky Way

The milky way and our Blue Planet, Credit: ESA/NASA

And beyond that, there are fundamental phenomena like quantum mechanics and relativity that can’t simply be scaled up or down, that make no sense at all with respect to human experience. It’s a remarkable testament to the flexibility and ingenuity of our brains that we have uncovered these critical rules of the Universe and that we can manipulate and use them intellectually via mathematics. But to say that we truly understand them, that we feel them; that’s impossible.

We’re still only primates, even if fairly smart ones, and our most basic instinctual appreciation of the world stems from that. We’re designed to react to big cats jumping out at us unexpectedly. We respond to a storm coming over the horizon, to hunger, to cold, to the need for companionship. Why would we have any understanding of the way tiny, invisible particles interact? Until very recently, we’ve simply not needed it, so we haven’t ever evolved an innate understanding of it, the way we just know that big cats can be dangerous.

As a primate, why would I worry about protons? But here we are, in just the last hundred years or so, knowing that protons exist, and with a pretty good understanding of how they work. And conversely, why would protons and the rules that govern them and the rest of physics care about us? This knowledge very recent appreciation of the Universe and our part in it, but also perhaps of how irrelevant we are in the grand scheme of things, brings on this weird mental vertigo. A visual metaphor might be the technique called a “dolly zoom” in film-making, where the camera moves towards the subject on a dolly while the lens is simultaneously zoomed out. This maintains the subject, typically a person, at a fixed scale, while the surroundings change size and perspective completely. It can be quite unsettling.

“In some ways, part of being a scientist is that while you feel you’re getting closer and closer to the real story, you also develop a new perspective, realising that you’re also getting further from it in some ways. You start to understand how little we really understand.”

But we are still looking for answers even if we may not understand them completely…

Mark McCaughrean: Sure, we’re driven by a curiosity that is innate, that is a fundamental part of what it means to be human. But perhaps astronomers are especially lucky in some sense, because we get to study the biggest picture of them all. There’s a very famous site from antiquity at Delphi in Greece, where the oracle was consulted on important issues. It’s also held to be the centre of the world, the navel or “omphalos“, the place where legend has it that two eagles met after Zeus sent them flying, one eastwards, one westwards. The same word lies at the root of the term ‘omphaloskeptics’, people that gaze inwards at their navels as a way of meditating on the cosmos.

I call astronomers ‘inverse omphaloskeptics’. Instead of gazing inwards at our navels, we sit at the centre of the Universe in some sense, looking out at the rest of it, trying to understand it all. We can do that with our telescopes and complex machinery, or we can just lie down on the grass under a clear, dark sky and stare up at the stars. To begin with, they look like they’re painted on a ceiling a few hundred metres above, but at some point your brain engages and says “no, they’re many trillions of kilometres away”: the perspective that brings can be impressive and scary.


Impressive and scary. Credit: NASA & ESA

The stars don’t impress my cat in the same way; he senses many things about the world that I don’t, but I don’t think he has any concept of the wider Universe. But knowing of this vastness and of our own insignificance is one thing; do we really understand it? In the end, the disconnection that that knowledge exposes is part of the human condition. This is where art comes in, as it can help us bridge that gap in an emotional way.

We’ve talked about paintings, but we’ve also been working with musicians over the last few years as well. Thanks to Rosetta, we’ve had people composing classical symphonic suites, prog rock concept albums, film music, avant garde piano music. They’re all trying to capture the inspiration that the mission has brought to them, using music to evoke those emotions.

“This is perhaps where art and science intersect, at the point where we come to terms with what it means to be human, to lead a brief, insignificant existence in a vast uncaring Universe. Both are attempts to bring some sense and understanding to this, and so I think it’s only natural that they come together, as in our joint ESA-Ars Electronica residency.”

And don’t forget—you still have until June 20, 2016 to apply for a residency at the ESA and at the Ars Electronica Futurelab. To get the details and submit an application, go to!

Mark McCaughrean

Prof Mark McCaughrean works for the European Space Agency, where he is the Senior Scientific Advisor in the Directorate of Science, responsible for communicating the scientific results from ESA’s astronomy, heliophysics, planetary, and fundamental physics missions. Following his PhD from the University of Edinburgh in 1988, he has worked in the UK, the US, Germany, and the Netherlands. His personal research involves observational studies of the formation of stars and their planetary systems using state-of-the-art ground- and space-based telescopes. He is an Interdisciplinary Scientist on the Science Working Group for the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope.