35-Spaceship Earth: The (visual) beauty of science

As the Scientific Visualization lead for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Mark SubbaRao oversees the translation of NASA science into images and movies. For Mark, science visualization is a key communication tool that allows the public to interact and explore the various scientific discoveries happening at NASA and beyond. He sits down with us and talks about his beginnings as an astronomer, his “Data to Dome” approach to experiential science through his work with planetariums, and the role of visualization and the performance of communication in the future of science comprehension.

This episode was produced by Jason Rodriguez and Shane M Hanlon, and mixed by Collin Warren. Artwork by Karen Romano Young. Interview conducted by Ashely Hamer.


Shane Hanlon :              00:00                Hi, Vicky.

Vicky Thompson:           00:01                Hi, Shane.

Shane Hanlon :              00:02                What is the coolest thing that you ever drawn, or something you’ve made visually? I know that you’re a visual artist.

Vicky Thompson:           00:07                Yeah.

Shane Hanlon :              00:09                Yeah. What have you done?

Vicky Thompson:           00:11                Oh. I love to draw.

Shane Hanlon :              00:12                I know.

Vicky Thompson:           00:13                Love, love to draw.

Shane Hanlon :              00:14                I know. This is a prompt just for you.

Vicky Thompson:           00:16                I know you know. Oh. That’s exciting. I have so many things to talk about, but I think during 2020, at some point in 2020, I started just drawing random everyday things that told a little story to me, in the day to sort of pass the days away. I would do a little watercolor illustration of… One day I did my daughter’s new water bottle that I had gotten her. And one day I painted a really, really old, pretty disgusting hat that my husband insists on keep wearing. It’s from our college, right?

Shane Hanlon :              01:00                Okay.

Vicky Thompson:           01:01                So I have these little illustrations that sort of demonstrate 2020 as a year.

Shane Hanlon :              01:09                Are there written descriptions associated with these or these just descriptions in your mind?

Vicky Thompson:           01:13                Some of them. Some of them. I was posting them online for a little while and writing little descriptions-

Shane Hanlon :              01:20                Is this before or after you-

Vicky Thompson:           01:20                … to go with them.

Shane Hanlon :              01:21                … quit IG?

Vicky Thompson:           01:23                Oh. Before. And then I quit for a while. Yes. So some of them are on IG, as you said, on Instagram, but thanks, Shane. But anyway, one of them is a little cookie that we made on Valentine’s Day.

Shane Hanlon :              01:41                Oh.

Vicky Thompson:           01:41                Things like that. And a little roll of tape where we were… This blue roll of tape that we were using to just hang everything all over the house, every drawing that my daughter made. There was all sorts of things-

Shane Hanlon :              01:57                [inaudible 00:01:57] painters tape, so it doesn’t rip the paint off the wall?

Vicky Thompson:           01:57                Exactly. Yeah. So I painted that roll of tape. So it’s kind of almost like a diary.

Shane Hanlon :              02:02                Oh. That’s nice. Do you still have all of these things somewhere? Are they still all around your house?

Vicky Thompson:           02:08                No. No. But I got a portfolio, a plastic sheet book to keep them in.

Shane Hanlon :              02:14                Aww.

Vicky Thompson:           02:14                Do you know what I mean?

Shane Hanlon :              02:15                I do know what you mean. Yeah.

Vicky Thompson:           02:17                Yeah. Yeah.

Shane Hanlon :              02:17                So lovely.

Vicky Thompson:           02:19                Yeah. So that’s, I think, the coolest, for me, thing I’ve ever drawn.

Shane Hanlon :              02:23                It sounds very cool.

Vicky Thompson:           02:24                Yeah. You’re not a visual artist. Are you a visual artist?

Shane Hanlon :              02:29                I’m not a visual artist. I will not be answering this question.

Vicky Thompson:           02:34                Okay. Oh, boy. Got nothing.

Shane Hanlon :              02:41                Science is fascinating, but don’t just take my word for it, join us as we hear stories from scientists for everyone. I’m Shane Hanlon.

Vicky Thompson:           02:50                And I’m Vicki Thompson.

Shane Hanlon :              02:52                And this is Third Pod from the Sun.

                                    02:58                So today my prompt was pretty straightforward and it relates fairly well to what we’re actually going to be hearing in the interview.

Vicky Thompson:           03:08                That’s really, really surprising to me, to no one. No. To everyone.

Shane Hanlon :              03:15                Surprising to everyone, including myself. So our interviewee, our guest today, their job is to make cool stuff that NASA scientists do, make that work accessible to everyone, to non-science audiences, to peers, colleagues, etcetera, specifically through visuals, which I guess one could say that that’s similar to what we do in an audio format.

Vicky Thompson:           03:42                Toot your own horn.

Shane Hanlon :              03:45                Okay. Fair enough. We shall just move on and get into the episode. Our interviewer was Ashley Hamer.

Mark SubbaRao:           03:59                My name is Mark SubbaRao. I work for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. And I lead the scientific visualization studio. We call it the SVS, the Scientific Visualization Studio. And it’s a group that’s been around for about three decades. And what they do is, they take all of NASA science and make images out of it, images, movies, things for the public to understand, things to help scientists communicate their science to other scientists. Sometimes even things that we use to communicate science to policymakers as well. So it’s basically turning science into movies. The team uses a lot of the same software and visual effects software that Hollywood uses. So we have one foot in that world, but at the same time, we have to be able to understand, and it’s all different kinds of science, earth science, planetary science, heliophysics, astrophysics, and be able to speak the language of science as well.

Ashley Hamer:              05:04                Wow. That’s fascinating. And what does a typical day look like in that for you? Is it just a lot of time at a computer?

Mark SubbaRao:           05:12                Yeah. I’m sure, like everybody tells you, that no day is really a typical day. Yeah. When you’re doing the actual work, it’s time at a computer, it’s writing code, it’s iterating on look and feel. We have different clients, so if we’re working on a particular product… Say I’m doing a visualization of methane that comes from wetlands across the world, I might be interacting with the scientists who run the models to determine that. Or we might be talking with a video producer about how we’re going to package that visualization into other NASA communication products, or maybe even someone on social media about like, “Oh. Can I make a version that looks good on Instagram,” or something like that.

Ashley Hamer:              06:03                Awesome. Well, that’s great. Yeah. So many questions about this, but just to take a step back, what drew you to science in the first place?

Mark SubbaRao:           06:13                Yeah. It’s a good question. I think my earliest memory of being attracted to science, I was quite young, maybe four years old, and it was watching a science documentary on PBS. And I have no idea what it was, but I remember seeing an ameba and this idea that there was all of this undiscovered world in a drop of water that you didn’t know about. And I think that was the fundamental interest and that kind of stuck in my mind. As I got older, I was really influenced by science fiction and also science writing as well. So Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, they both wrote a lot of science fiction, but also hard science as well. And I would read both of them. And I think that same sort of desire to the idea that there’s more to the world than we know kind of led me from maybe instead of investigating that drop of water, but thinking about really big things, and that was my interest in astrophysics and cosmology.

Ashley Hamer:              07:20                And so, are you schooled as an astronomer?

Mark SubbaRao:           07:24                Yeah. So my background’s as a research astronomer, got my PhD in astrophysics, and a lot of that was [inaudible 00:07:33]. Well, my first real big project I worked on was a survey to make the biggest map of the universe that had ever been made. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey was a really sort of wonderful project by many measures in terms of number of papers put out, and citations, all that. It’s one of the most successful projects in the history of astronomy.

                                    07:54                My job was running the software to determine the distances to galaxies. So this is really a 3D map. And I kind of known, from my training, I know how to make 2D maps, but I didn’t really know how to plot things in 3D. And that’s when I started playing around with computer graphics, and that sort of led to my interest in visualization. As this map started to come together, I realized that I was able to display… This was our best knowledge of what the universe looked like, but nobody could see it. It was on my computer, but nobody else really knew what things looked like, even people working on the project. And all of that led me to really value the visualization as being a really key part of understanding. There was something that you got out of it that you weren’t just getting from just the numbers that we did, or do research about how galaxies are distributed and you measure certain statistics and you get some numerical values that tells you how clustered galaxies are, but it wasn’t quite the same as seeing through it and actually, with some of the more advanced tools, being able to fly through it and feel like you’re there, so.

Ashley Hamer:              09:04                Yeah.

Mark SubbaRao:           09:05                That was, I think, sort of the impetus for that transition. I started just doing more and more visually oriented science, but also what it started, realized the importance of sharing that with the public, and that led me eventually… At this time I was working at the University of Chicago, but I started a halftime position at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, and eventually I sort of transitioned over there and moved more and more into science communication.

                                    09:33                I got pretty enamored with the planetarium as a venue for that because if you’re talking about large data sets, you’re talking about this map that we built, this 3D map of the universe, seeing it in a planetarium is a completely different experience. When you’re inside a 75-foot dome, seeing that data all around you, you can see those million galaxies and it went from being like I have a sense of what the structure is looking on my laptop, but in the dome, flying through it, it felt like a place. I could remember relationships better. It was just a fascinating thing to explore. And so, that really was the impetus to say like, “Oh. I think planetariums are really special places.” And you’d see it from the visitors, you’d see the fact that you’d be in one and an elderly woman would come up and she would tell you clearly about this experience she had in grade school. There’s something about this environment that’s causing people to have this deep emotional connection to it.

Ashley Hamer:              10:41                Yeah. I feel like a lot of people would think that science visualization would be an art, you would need an art background. Is there artistic talent that you need for this? Are you artistic? Do you consider yourself that?

Mark SubbaRao:           10:56                Yes. I mean, I wouldn’t call myself an artist, but you’re definitely at the realm where you’re blending science and art. It’s important to have a good eye. Back when I was doing more hardcore research, I would take classes and paint watercolors and do things like that. And then once I started working at the planetarium, I really stopped doing that. And part of that was just because I was feeling like with this career and in doing the science visualization, both sides of the brain were being activated and both skills were being used, and that was really, really a great thing about this career.

Ashley Hamer:              11:37                Nice. So do you have any people or things that served as your inspiration to get where you are?

Mark SubbaRao:           11:43                Yeah. A lot of people have inspired me at various points. I think with my current role at NASA, and one of the challenges of this role is that you are working at this interdisciplinary field and you want to take people with many different backgrounds and have them work together effectively. The person I think who did that the best was Donna Cox at the University of Illinois, and she really pioneered this style of scientific visualization that we do, a sort of cinematic style of science visualization, but also she pioneered a way of working with an interdisciplinary team. She calls it a renaissance team. So she’s someone I got to work with a lot, especially when I was starting in Chicago and she was downstate in Illinois. It was really a model for how I want to build this group.

Ashley Hamer:              12:45                That’s really cool. What was the biggest hurdle or obstacle to you being where you are today?

Mark SubbaRao:           12:52                I kind of feel like that really the sort of outreach and research shouldn’t be as separate as they are and trying to walk that line between being someone who does both as much as possible. And maybe I’ve gone on that line more towards doing outreach, but I think there’s real power in as an outreach person being able to say that, “Hey. I’m actual scientist who does this.” But also, if we’re scientists… And I’ve seen this with so many of the graduate students and postdocs who have come through our lab and talk with the public just to one, keep perspective so you can talk to each other and then give that perspective back to yourself to help guide… You just remember that it’s a privilege to get to do this and to enjoy it.

Ashley Hamer:              13:48                Do you think that’s the main hurdle for scientists who try to communicate with the public? I mean, I’m sure not everyone is as good at it as you are, and I’ve definitely seen that. Do you think that’s the main thing, they just can’t keep perspective?

Mark SubbaRao:           14:02                Yeah. I think it’s about being able to widen that perspective. Absolutely. We tell everybody like, “Avoid jargon. Do this, do that,” but they all have to do the same thing. They have to deal with the fact that you are too much in your sphere. What I push back against is this idea that experts are not good communicators because they forget these things. Well, only if they allow themselves to. I think what they need to be is very conscious of the language they use… Yeah. Maybe let’s step back and put that a different way. When you actually talk to people and you talk to anyone who’s interested enough to listen to you, which is already [inaudible 00:14:43], but people who are interested enough to listen to you, even if they don’t know the terms, even if they might mix up some scales, I think you’re almost always better giving people the benefit of the doubt. So you don’t assume knowledge, but also you want to talk to people in a way that makes them feel… I could put this a better way. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the sort of kind of science communication I’ve always argued for is one that kind of gives the public the benefit of the doubt.

Ashley Hamer:              15:17                Respects their intelligence, is that what you’re looking for?

Mark SubbaRao:           15:20                Respects their intelligence. I mean, nobody likes being talked down to. And so, we sometimes can go too far in our effort not to lose people and that we can talk down to people. And it’s not the big concepts. The really big concepts are, in many ways, often the easiest things to understand. I’ll give an example from astronomy. So there are a couple things that people always ask about in astronomy. Well, it’s black holes. Well, black holes are just cool in the public imagination. But interestingly, a lot of the topics people ask about are cosmological and really big things like the origin, evolution of the universe. It seem like really, really advanced science. And you might say to yourself, “Well, people don’t understand how seasons work. If they don’t understand how the seasons work, why am I explaining to them about redshift and the expansion of the universe?” But if you actually stop and think about it, an expanding universe is an easier mental concept than how the seasons work, which is actually a lot of complex geometry, which is actually hard to piece together. It’s just that it seems like it’s simple because one’s far [inaudible 00:16:38] from our experience and one is our everyday experience.

                                    16:44                And now maybe pulling this back in the kind of visual work we do now. And part of this comes from an insight one of my colleagues had early on where he said that, “If I’m going to write a story about something, I’ve got to write at a fifth grade level.” But I can show you imagery, I can show you a movie of what’s happening that’s at a graduate school level. Or actually, the movies that we make, because of the tools we use, we’re going to be able to show that in a way that has more detail than the scientists often even knew existed. They’ll see more than they knew about in their own data. And that’s why I feel like, visually, that’s the trick to get more complex information in. And we live in a world where the science behind how our planet is changing is complex science and there’s no way around it. There’s some simple overriding concepts, but as we really get into it, we’re going to have to get beyond those simple ideas of greenhouse gases and actually investigate all the complex interactions that are going on as part of climate change. And how do we get the public to a point where they can actually understand and make decisions based on that? I think a tool for that is visualizations.

Ashley Hamer:              18:03                It’s interesting that you mentioned the seasons too ’cause, to me, that seems like a concept that absolutely needs visualization to really understand. Whenever people are talking about it, they put their fists in the air and they’re like, “This is the sun and this is the earth.” Yeah. Yeah. It’s interesting to think about how many scientific concepts can be explained just through visualization. What is the personal achievement that you’re the most proud of?

Mark SubbaRao:           18:34                That’s a really good question. I think it would be some of my work in the planetarium. A piece of nomenclature I gave to it was the term data to dome. And the idea is that if we could streamline the process of a measurement being taken, a discovery happening to that being visualized, that we could make it easier to communicate current science. This data to dome sort of movement was something that we started in the planetarium field, and I think it’s gotten real traction. I think the ultimate goal is to lead to better engagement with current science. And so, that’s something I’m really proud of.

                                    19:27                One little thing that, just from the past year… I mean, one of my goals of coming to this position at NASA had to do with the fact that it was changing scope a little bit. Even though people think about NASA and space, most of the SVS’ work is actually in earth science. And at the Goddard Space Flight Center, they’re more working earth scientists than, I think, in any institution in the world. And so, a whole lot of that is focused on climate. And of course, the [inaudible 00:20:01] system is intimately tied with climate change.

                                    20:05                But I got to a point where, as much as I love astronomy, I think being able to have some impact on this tremendous issue that the world is facing, and one where the public communication system is so broken and people’s understanding of what’s happening is so broken and to have a positive impact on that. So that really motivated me sort of shifting in this role, shifting more towards an earth science based focus.

                                    20:36                And this year made a simple little visualization called Climate Spiral, but it’s gone viral with millions and millions of people sharing on the internet. And just to see the conversations, most of it’s really good, and you realize like, “Oh. If you can find the right way to make something clear or interesting or beautiful enough so people pay attention, it gets them talking about something. And if they’re talking about it, they’re paying attention to it.” And just being able to push a little bit on that public awareness and understanding and engagement around something like climate change is very rewarding.

Ashley Hamer:              21:15                And what do you see as one of the biggest challenges in science today?

Mark SubbaRao:           21:20                I’m going to answer two things. I think one is changing the culture of how science is done. And that’s something that’s been happening and it’s been happening fast. But in many ways, the way we train scientists is just not in step with the way modern science is done. And it’s done with large teams, big collaborations, coordination. The infrastructure of science is very important. I worked on software projects and infrastructures projects. The reward systems aren’t always there to reward that kind of work. Everything’s enabled by the infrastructure, but it’s often the reward comes from picking off the results that come out of that infrastructure and getting papers out. So I think that sort of transformation in how collaborations happen, how publishing happens, and that integration of what we’ve been talking about for the most time is communication and making that communication fundamental part of science. Science isn’t finished until it’s communicated, right?

Shane Hanlon :              22:42                Well, we are doing the good work of communicating science and we are artists, right?

Vicky Thompson:           22:49                Yeah. But are you seriously comparing yourself, our work to the amazing work that Mark is doing?

Shane Hanlon :              22:58                I mean, I was until I got that look from you that no one can actually see on the podcast. But in all fairness, you are right. As a science communicator, I always talk about making science more accessible, and one way to do that is to communicate science through different media and mediums. And I want to thank Mark for the work that he does. And with that, that is all from Third Pod from the Sun.

Vicky Thompson:           23:23                Special thanks to Ashley Hamer for conducting the interview, and to NASA for sponsoring the series.

Shane Hanlon :              23:29                This episode was produced by Jason Rodriguez and me, with audio engineering from Colin Warren and artwork by Karen Romano Young.

Vicky Thompson:           23:37                We’d love to hear your thoughts. Please rate and review us. And you can find new episodes on your favorite podcasting app or at thirdpodfromthesun.com.

Shane Hanlon :              23:45                Thanks all, and see you next week. How many did you end up doing?

Vicky Thompson:           23:54                Oh. Like a hundred.

Shane Hanlon :              23:55                Oh, wow. Okay. You did a bunch.

Vicky Thompson:           23:59                Yeah. I even got a little light so that I could light the things I was… And sometimes I would draw something that I was reminded of from my childhood. So it wasn’t necessarily related to the pandemic necessarily. Should I say that again?

Shane Hanlon :              24:14                Say it again.

Vicky Thompson:           24:15                [inaudible 00:24:15] times. Necessarily. But I drew a leave a penny, take a penny tray.

Shane Hanlon :              24:22                Okay. Yeah. Yeah. I know. I know.

Vicky Thompson:           24:22                I was for some reason reminded, and I don’t feel like… Do we still have those? Leave a penny, take a penny.

Shane Hanlon :              24:25                I mean, I’m sure at some gas stations here and there. I know when I go back to where I grew up-

Vicky Thompson:           24:31                Rural Pennsylvania.

Shane Hanlon :              24:34                I intentionally did not say it because even though this isn’t going anywhere, I still don’t want to give you the satisfaction of it.

Vicky Thompson:           24:39                [inaudible 00:24:39].

Shane Hanlon :              24:40                It is funny how though… I feel like that’s a really productive use of time during the stay-at-home part of the pandemic, whereas I decided to play Zelda on my Nintendo Switch. So that’s how I spent the pandemic-

Vicky Thompson:           25:00                Oh. Nintendo Switch.

Shane Hanlon :              25:00                … or at least the shutdown part of it.

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