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Art and science mingle at Flagstaff’s 'I Heart Pluto' festival

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Dan Durda
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Dan Durda created the concept art for a postage stamp showing Pluto and the New Horizons spacecraft.

Flagstaff is showing its love for Pluto with a ten-day festival that includes science talks, an art show, and a specially crafted beer. It’s to celebrate the 92nd anniversary of Pluto’s discovery at Lowell Observatory. One of the speakers at the “I Heart Pluto” Festival is artist and astronomer Dan Durda. He spoke with KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny about how art can help scientists imagine whole new worlds.

Back in 1930 when Pluto was first discovered, what did artists think it might look like?

I think we were still in the mode of having not yet seen the planets up close, we were still living in the telescopic age of planetary astronomy. I think we were limited in our imaginations; nature is always far more imaginative than we are. I think when Pluto was first discovered, of course the reality of the understanding that this is a place very, very far from the warmth of the sun, so one expects it to be frozen place, a cryogenic place, knowing what the temperature should be. I think our bias toward thinking about a frozen world was rather boring. Imagining a little cratered, boring, iceberg planet, a snowy wasteland, an icy wasteland. That was about as far as people were allowing themselves to imagine.

So the New Horizon mission a few years back that flew by Pluto, I think came as a surprise to a lot of people. How did that change the way people were thinking about Pluto?

It did. We began to dare to dream that Pluto might be interesting. What New Horizons showed us, yet again, is that nature is always better at daring and dreaming than we are. As interesting as we thought Pluto might be, it turned out to be even more interesting, with glacier flow and cryovolcanoes, and this beautiful blue atmosphere. We knew there was an atmosphere there, but I don’t know that anybody dared to dream that it would be that pretty, so to speak. Yet again showed us the reason we go and explore is to learn these new things and be surprised and be awed.

A painting of a pale, cratered planet with a faint atmosphere and a dark moon rising above it, beneath a dark sky splattered with stars.
Dan Durda
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Dan Durda's envisioning of Pluto and Charon in advance of the New Horizons mission

Exoplanets are so much further out than Pluto is; we don’t have the technology to get to them. Do you think we’ll have to rely on artists for ideas of what exoplanets look like?

Yeah, for a very long time. We already are getting direct images of exoplanets, but of course they’re—the way we were with Pluto back in 1930, it’s just a dot of light…. But now we’re actually beginning to learn about the composition of their atmospheres, and we know their temperatures. We can begin to help imagine what these places might ne like. So yeah, we’re limited to the artwork for now, but that’s inspired and informed by the science itself.

We really think of science and art as separate or maybe even in conflict with each other. How do think science can benefit from art, and vice versa?

Science by its very nature, I always remind people, science is not a noun, it’s not just this collection of facts and knowledge, it’s a verb, it’s an activity, it’s a very creative human enterprise. Well, so is art and that sort of expression. The artwork can help inspire and excite and generate new ideas in exploration, and the exploration itself, we see it reflected in the history of astronomical art. Pluto is a great example, we can see the artwork itself, the depictions of Pluto itself, evolve with time as we learn more and more, through our scientific, investigations of what that world is really like. They really do interact with each other in a very intimate and very important way.

Dan Durda, thank you so much for speaking with me.

Thank you very much, Melissa, it was great.

Dan Durda will speak virtually at the festival on Saturday, February 12 at 7pm MST. Find a complete schedule of events here: https://iheartpluto.org/schedule

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Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.