The Big Picture Guy
Story by Alan D. McNarie
About 13.73 billion years out on the space-time continuum rides a modest whirlpool of a few hundred billion stars circling a super-massive black hole: the Milky Way, one of perhaps five hundred billion galaxies in our known universe. Somewhere in the Orion arm of that galaxy is a medium-large star, and whirling around it is a small, rocky planet with liquid water and an atmosphere. In the middle of that planet’s largest ocean lies an island where, on the lanai of a home built on the slope of a volcano in South Kona, Jon Lomberg takes a sip of lemonade and thinks about his place in it all.
“What I try to do,” says the artist, “is to give people a way to connect with the cosmos—whether it’s an animation sequence or a galaxy garden or stargazing at Kona Village or on cruise ships—so that people don’t feel insignificant or scared by it.”
Lomberg’s in his early 60s but looks a decade younger; with his tousled black hair, prominent nose and bushy eyebrows, he bears more than a little resemblance to his late friend and collaborator, astronomer Carl Sagan. Lomberg has spent much of his adult life creating images that not only connect people to the cosmos, but also science to art and scientists to ordinary people. He earned an Emmy for his work as lead artist for PBS’ groundbreaking Cosmos series, and he illustrated the series’ companion volume, which became the best-selling science book of all time. Scientists at NASA and Hawai‘i’s observatories regularly call on him to convert their data into images that lay people can understand.
Lomberg’s also a specialist at creating visual language to communicate with people of the distant future—and maybe even extraterrestrials. He’s worked on a project to develop signs warning humans away from nuclear waste repositories that will remain radioactive for longer than 10,000 years. He designed a gold record cover with pictographs meant to instruct prospective ET’s on how to play the gold-plated copper disc inside, a recording with information about our humble planet: spoken greetings in fifty-five languages, sounds of nature, human music and a stellar map of Earth’s location. The record is now aboard the Voyager I space probe, launched in 1977 on a trajectory that will eventually take it out of the solar system. It’s currently the farthest man-made object from Earth.
“That message is now far beyond Pluto,” he muses. “The lifetime of that drawing is how long it will take for the occasional whisper of interstellar dust to erode it. How many artists get to make something that lasts a thousand million years?”
If life had turned out a little differently, Lomberg might have spent his career illustrating something slightly more ephemeral: comic books.
“I came from a comic book/poster kind of background in terms of the images I was making,” he recalls. But he’d been interested in astronomy ever since his childhood in Philadelphia. His career took a sharp turn when he showed Sagan some paintings based on the astronomer’s work. Sagan liked what he saw. When his book The Cosmic Connection came out in 1973, its cover bore a Lomberg illustration of a galleon sailing to the stars. It was the beginning of a relationship that lasted over two decades until Sagan’s death in 1996. Lomberg did the cover art for all of Sagan’s books, worked with him on Cosmos and created digital animation for the film version of Sagan’s novel, Contact.
During that time, Lomberg witnessed a revolution not just in astronomy, but also in art. He created the animations in the Cosmos TV series essentially the same way that Disney made Snow White: hand-painted, frame by frame. But by the time Contact was filmed, computer graphics had come of age. “When I explain to this generation of animators how [Cosmos] was done, it’s sort of like a sailor from a clipper ship talking to the engine room crew of a modern liner,” Lomberg says.
The digital revolution has also changed the way astronomers observe the sky. Most telescopes spit out digital data, not photographic images. Lomberg takes the scientists’ interpretations of the numbers to create visual approximations. One of the “dwarf planets,” Sedna, recently discovered in the far reaches of the solar system, appears merely as a small, blurry dot through even the most powerful telescopes. But astronomers at Mauna Kea’s Gemini Observatory analyzed the spectrum of light from that dot to determine Sedna’s likely chemical composition. Extrapolating from that and other data, Lomberg painted a close-up of the planet. Another Gemini discovery—a cloud of dust circling a distant star—led to a portrait of an asteroid collision that probably created the dust ring in a process similar to what happened in the early solar system. Spectral and motion analysis of one infrared image from Gemini resembled a blurry figure eight; Lomberg depicted the dwarf star Epsilon Indi and its two companion brown dwarfs, objects believed to have formed in the same way as stars but which lack sufficient mass to ignite the chain reaction that causes a star to glow.
One of Lomberg’s best-known paintings is a view of the entire Milky Way seen from the outside, 60,000 light-years from the black hole at the galactic center. The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum commissioned the panorama, where it remains in the permanent collection. One scientific paper described it as the most accurate picture of the galaxy ever created. But even in that painting, Lomberg admits that he used a technique called forced perspective, “exaggerating the difference in size between the foreground objects and the background objects” to create the illusion of depth and distance.
Such artistic license is necessary, given that many of Lomberg’s subjects are impossible to view; they’re too vast, too dim or so bright they’d destroy human eyes. But that license gives him the ability, literally, to put things into a unique perspective. Telescopes can see the universe only from Earth (or near-Earth orbit). Lomberg’s art can change the viewpoint to anywhere in space and time, from the surface of Mars at sunset to a few light years away from a black hole, where gravity is so strong that it bends light itself. Where most artists might depict a galaxy from directly above the galactic center, showing a neat disk, for instance, Lomberg painted his image of the Milky Way from ten degrees above the orbital plane of the galaxy, so the viewer gets a better—if only approximate—sense of its vastness.
“Getting a perspective on that disk was something I had worked on for many years,” he says. His aim is to create a shift in consciousness similar to the one that occurred in the late ’60s with NASA’s moon missions. Seeing our tiny blue planet from space, he believes, gave humanity a new perspective of our home planet, and with it an “awareness of the fragility of the Earth. Almost everyone who’s seen the Earth from outside has had that transformation,” he says.
It was only natural for Lomberg to move to the Big Island, one of the world’s great epicenters of astronomy. And it was also only natural that once he’d arrived he should seek to bridge another communication gap: between astronomers and island residents, many of whom oppose the presence of the telescopes on Mauna Kea, a site sacred to Native Hawaiians. One way to make that connection, he believes, is to get local people involved.
One of his unique visual metaphors lies just down the road from his house at Paleaku Peace Gardens, a nonprofit retreat center in Honaunau. The public is welcome to tour the Galaxy Garden, a 100-foot-diameter scale model of the Milky Way created entirely from flowering plants. Different plants symbolize different cosmic phenomena—hibiscus, for instance, represent the gaseous clouds of nebulae. At the garden’s center stands a black water fountain shaped like a black hole. Somewhere among the croton shrubs in the Orion arm, a tiny crystal earring represents our solar system (the crystal, though, isn’t to scale; it’s a thousand times too large). “The Galaxy Garden is way of experiencing what the galaxy is like by way of the garden as metaphor,” Lomberg says. “Like the flowers, the stars are born and blossom and die.”
When neighbor Barbara DeFranco, the director of Paleaku Peace Gardens, heard Lomberg’s idea, she offered it a home and lent her gardening expertise. The Change Happens Foundation came up with the funding, and science students from Konawaena High School supplied much of the labor, learning about the galaxy in the process.
The garden “grew in my mind for many years as a way of conveying what the galaxy is,” he recounts. “The three key concepts of where I am in this universe are: ‘I’m on the Earth, in the solar system, in the galaxy.’ Everyone knows we’re on the Earth. Most people know that we’re in the solar system. Very few people have an understanding of what the galaxy is.”
Lomberg is also working with the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism and with Kapi‘olani Community College on a project called Creativity Academies. “It involves using new media to develop STEM [science, technology, education and math] skills,” he explains. “I hope to do a digital Mars for that project with a company in Honolulu called Avatar Reality. … It’s teaching students to do really complicated digital projects.” He’s also working with KCC students and another Honolulu company, Animation Studios, to create the opening titles for a new IMAX film about the final space shuttle mission to refurbish the Hubble Space Telescope.
Lomberg believes that what Hawai‘i’s observatories—as well as its indigenous people—tell us about the night sky should be a part of the visitor experience in the Islands, and he practices what he preaches: He’s been conducting stargazing programs at the Kona Village Resort since 1991.
He takes another sip of lemonade and gazes out at the vast Pacific, beneath a fragile layer of atmosphere, circling within the vast solar system that whirls among the vaster galaxy among the billions and billions of galaxies that swarm through the detectable universe.
Eyes can take you a long way. But vision, as Lomberg has learned, can take you to the edge of everywhere.