Artist turns pixels into planets


The people at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View are in a way explorers, just as much as the crews of The Nina, The Pinta, and The Santa Maria. They, too, are looking for new worlds, but not in the form of shorelines. This is more subtle than that.

"It's like watching a mosquito fly across the headlight of a car a mile away," says Kepler lead investigator Jon Jenkins, Ph.D.

So now to the hard work part, following a blinding launch of the Kepler Space Telescope last March, a project that has boosted the search for distant planets into warp mode. Kepler looks at a fixed point in sky and measures the brightness of stars. When one of them dims, it is often because a planet got in the way. It is a measurement manifested with squiggly lines, often followed by a scientific paper, and then intense scrutiny by Lynette .

"Most people, the lay person, looks at a little plot and a little graph and all these little squigglies going up and down, and well, gee, why should they care about little squigglies?" says Cook.

At her home in Daly City, Cook has learned to turn those squiggly discoveries into an art form of distant planetscapes.

"In your mind's eye you are there already," she says. "So forget the travel, forget the cost, the number of years it would take to get there and be an armchair traveler."

Until 1995, Cook was just another typical artist, but that was the year astronomers discovered the first planet orbiting a sun like our own, that was not our own. Those astronomers wanted to advertise their discoveries. Hence, the birth of a new cottage industry.

"I can only report what I see and not one inch farther," says planet hunter Dr. Geoff Marcy.

At the earthscape also known as UC Berkeley, Marcy has earned a reputation as the most famous planet hunter of them all. He has discovered hundreds of them. Many adorn his office wall, at least Cook's renditions of them.

"She takes the science, understands it, and then has the artistic touch to bring that science to the public," he says.

"I'm supposed to do something with that? They look like black blobs to me," jokes Cook.

Or maybe they begin as blobs, but not after Cook takes what we already know of our near and far universe, and applies those visuals to the data. Her work combines all the imagination from her artistic side, with the discipline of a person who also majored in science.

"There are definitely parameters, yes," says Cook. "I can't put purple polkadots on a planet for example, no."

But moons are generally OK. She is big on moons.

"I threw in the moon... because I wanted to," she says.

One piece, for instance, depicts a world in an elliptical orbit around a sun, a place that alternates between very hot and very cold every time around.

"I mean who just wants to see a round sphere in a star field all the time?" she says. "I mean, that gets really boring. It's making it available to the public, via my art, that there is more to astronomy than just a moon and a star, or just a planet and a star."

There is no question about that. It is also a very good living for a woman who gets away from it all by nurturing the terrestrial life forms in her backyard garden.

So which one is her favorite planet?

"Out of the entire universe, I'd have to say Earth."

There is no place like home, especially for a woman who travels so far.

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