Astronaut combines art and science to awesome effect


PRESENT TENSE: We all need a bit of awe in our lives and science has the power to blow our minds, writes SHANE HEGARTY

I DON’T know what you see when you wake up every morning and look out the window, but I know what Soichi Noguchi sees. A lot. Almost everything, in fact. Entire countries he can block out with his thumb. Oceans he can span with his hand. And more often than not, he takes a picture.

Noguchi is an astronaut on board the International Space Station and a very popular figure on Twitter. If you follow him, you will occasionally get a stream of squares as your computer fails to translate the Japanese script he often writes in. But it is not about his words: it is about his images.

He is a prolific photographer, spanning continents several times a day. His pictures are simple – he doesn’t strike me as anything other than an enthusiastic amateur – but they are stunning, almost unfailing in their ability to make you stop for a moment and realise how beautiful the planet is, how lucky he is and how unutterably small you are. It is a version of Douglas Adam’s Total Perspective Vortex. Only it makes you grin rather than go mind-burblingly crazy.

On Wednesday he posted a picture of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, its black tendrils looked eerily beautiful as it stretched through miles of ocean. It is a unique image, giving a sense of its scale previously unseen and with a touch of humanity that a satellite cannot. The picture looks as if it was taken by an interested photographer rather than a disinterested automaton.

What Noguchi does is to bring science and art together in a way that appeals to 250,000 people each day. He is one of the best things NASA has right now; up there at least with the rovers still toddling across Mars or the Voyager and Pioneer spacecrafts on lonely, perhaps eternal journeys into deep space. And if you want, you can talk to him and he may even talk back. If you need any proof of how wonderful modern technology can be, it’s that you can send a message to a man floating 400km above your head, and that he might reply with a holiday snap of your entire country.

He is not the only tweeting astronaut, but he is a reminder of just how awesome science can be. Not “awesome” in the modern way in which it is used merely as an everyday replacement for a nod, but “awesome” in a way that leaves your mind breathless from trying to appreciate the scale of it. And of how much fun it can be.

There is a reminder closer to home, though. Later this month, the people behind Trinity College’s Science Gallery will travel to Finland where they will discover if they have won the European Museum of the Year award. It is on a shortlist for a prize that has previously been won by the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the Victoria and Albert in London and Dublin’s Chester Beatty Library.

The Science Gallery is a remarkable venture, because it too is a marriage of science and art, and of craft and creativity, imagination and innovation. In its two years, it has placed itself firmly in a small and valuable niche by appealing to every age group.

Its current exhibit, a crocheted coral reef, is a wonder in itself, both cheery and serious. The gallery’s publicity describes it as “a complex beauty of nature and the fragility of our underwater ecosystem through a mathematical odyssey into climate change”, which, frankly, sounds quite intimidating. In fact, it speaks of its confidence in the value of what it is doing that it doesn’t feel the need to talk down the science but instead revel in it.

You just know that there are school students going in there half bored by the very thought of spending a few hours at a science exhibition, but leaving with an inkling that one day they will want to go into it as a job.

Science, of course, is not all about crocheted coral and dressing up and exhibitions attached to coffee shops. But it can be about awe, about discovery, about imagination.

The Government part funds the Science Gallery. It would be wonderful if, as part of a necessary attempt to encourage young people to go into sciences, there were versions of the Science Gallery in cities across the country. Because, if our national museums acknowledge that our past is worth safeguarding for the public, then we should look at how we safeguard the future. Now, more than ever, we could all do with a bit of awe in our lives.

Follow Soichi Noguchi at