Galaxy Garden: Science artist says it’s time to plant new thoughts about the universe
By Will Bowen
People used to complain to the late great scientist of the cosmos, Carl Sagan, that they did not like astronomy because it was scary and made them feel small and insignificant in comparison with the grandeur of the universe. Sagan would reply, “Well, if you feel that way, why don’t you go out and do something significant!”In a similar vein, Sagan’s long-term artistic collaborator, Jon Lonberg, likes to say, “Well, maybe you and I are just a speck of dust in the universe, but we are an impressive speck of dust that has figured out our galaxy!”
Lonberg, who worked on the movie “Contact” (1997), and won an Emmy for his work as chief artist for the TV series “COSMOS” (1978-1979), gave a talk Dec. 3 at the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at Atkinson Hall on the UC San Diego campus. Lonberg urged listeners to stop thinking of themselves solely as La Jollans, Californians, Americans or Earthlings, and start thinking of themselves as Citizens of the Galaxy.
This, Lonberg says, is a significant step in breaking down some of the false barriers and misconceptions that divide the planet and lead to conflict and strife.
“From a cosmic perspective, the things that divide us are meaningless. We should be shedding our differences and embracing our commonality,” Lonberg insisted. “We are the first generation to emerge out of an awareness of our solar system into an awareness of our galaxy. Our civilization has evolved to the point that we can introduce ourselves to the universe.”
Lonberg, who was also design director of NASA’s legendary Voyager Interstellar Record (humanity’s self-portrait or time capsule that was launched on a billion-year voyage to the stars in hopes that it might be found by extraterrestrial life), discussed his current project, which he would like to see based out of the Center for Imagination. He wants to send a computerized time capsule program, similar to that on Voyager, to the New Horizon spacecraft, which is now about two years away from the planet Pluto. Included will be photographs, music, and the names of 10,000 people who have signed a petition urging NASA to undertake this project.
Lonberg also spoke about the 100-foot-wide garden at his home on the Kona Coast of Hawaii, which he has shaped into a scale model of our galaxy. On one of the leavesof one of plants in the garden, many of the familiar stars that we can see at night are indicated. On a nearby plant, visitors can find the location of Kepler 22b, which is the nearest Earth-like planet, perhaps holding life forms, discovered by the Kepler Telescope.
Lonberg first designed a model galaxy for a gallery in Toronto, Canada in 1975. After completing one of his cosmic paintings, “Star Flowers,” he said he came to the realization that a garden might serve as an excellent scale model representation of our galaxy.
With the help of students from the local high school where he lives, Lonberg took plants common to Hawaii and began to build a spiral-shaped garden in scale with the actual galaxy.
The garden he created is highly symbolic and metaphorical. For instance, hibiscus flowers are used to represent nebuli, tiny red pebbles on the garden path stand for red giant stars and the black hole at thecenter of the galaxy is depicted as a fountain.
Lonberg uses his galaxy garden to give workshops for teachers and students to help them get a hands-on, walk-around feel for the cosmos. He hopes to build an even larger garden in Shanghai, China in the near future.
In the audience for Lonberg’s talk was best-selling science fiction writer David Brin, the author of “The Postman,” a novel made into a movie starring Kevin Costner. Brin says he always “gets the vibes” around Lonberg and that he likes the idea of the galaxy garden.
“People, both kids and adults, respond well to the garden because it gives you a sense of scale,” said Brin.
Also in the audience was astronomer Dennis Davidson, who built a digital model of our galaxy for the Hayden Gallery in New York City. “I think the garden is incredible! It is the most efficient way to help people understand our galaxy and itbrings a new awareness or embodied cognition about the galaxy to people who wander in it,” Davidson remarked.
Erik Viirea, an M.D. and Ph.D. involved in neuroscience research, introduced Lonberg. In his concluding statements Lonberg told the audience, “There must be other forms of life out there, more advanced than us, who have already worked through many or all of the problems we are still dealing with here on Earth. We may never be able to sit down and chat with extraterrestrial beings because the distances between us are so great, but we may be able to start communication with them using radio waves that move through the universes at the speed of light.
“These days there are so many negative visions of the future, such as doomsdays, zombie apocalypses, and the like … we need a positive vision of the future. My dream is that we will eventually encounter and connect with higher forms of life, who will help us evolve as a civilization.”
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