Episode 2: Instruments and Singing Asteroids

with Dr Amanda Sickafoose and Vanessa Lorenzo

In Episode 2, we hear from Dr Amanda Sickafoose who tells us about the complicated instrumentation her team are building for South African telescopes and some of her fascinating work on our Solar System.

Vanessa Lorenzo also talks to us about her time as artist-in-residence at the SAAO and her installation giving a voice to rocks and asteroids.

Vanessa demonstrating her prototype exhibition at the SAAO. 
The performer Mélanie Martinoli explores the augmented rocks in the VR version of 
‘Always Calling Home’, by Vanessa Lorenzo, 2018-ongoing. Photo by the artist CC BY 4.0. 

Episode Links:



This week’s guests:


Dan: [00:00:00] Welcome to The Cosmic Savannah with Dr. Daniel Cunnama

Jacinta: [00:00:07] and Dr. Jacinta Delhaize. Each episode, we’ll give you a behind-the-scenes look world-class astronomy and astrophysics happening under African skies.

Dan: [00:00:16] Let us introduce you to the people involved, the technology we use. The exciting work we do, and the fascinating discoveries we make.

Jacinta: [00:00:24] Sit back and relax as we take you on a Safari through the skies.

Hello and welcome to today’s episode. Today, we’re going to be talking about Astro instruments and singing asteroids. Who are we going to be talking to you today?

Dan: [00:00:40] Yeah. So first up we have the head of instrumentation at the SAAO, Dr. Amanda Sickafoose. And she’ll be talking to us a little bit about her work in terms of the instrumentation and the telescopes here at the observatory.

And also some of her work after that, we’ll be, taking a different approach and talking about art and science. And for that, we’ll be speaking to Vanessa Lorenzo.

Jacinta: [00:01:06] Yeah. And we’re kind of sticking in the solar system today. As we were in the previous episode you might’ve heard, with Nicholas Erasmus talking about asteroids, so we’re staying in our solar system.

And of course, our solar system is the sun at the center, which is a big star. Well, actually a medium-sized star, I guess. And then it’s got eight planets going around it, including the earth, some asteroids, and then out in the outer solar system, there’s Pluto and other dwarf planets, and some comets and other things.

Do you have anything to add there, Dan?

Dan: [00:01:39] Yeah. So we’ll be talking today with Amanda, as I mentioned, and she studies trans-Neptunian objects. So these are objects, which are way out beyond Neptune’s orbit in the far reaches of our solar system.

Jacinta: [00:01:54] And we really don’t know much about that aspect of the solar system, because even though it’s close by in terms of the universe, you know, if you zoom out beyond our solar system, you get into our galaxy, the Milky Way, which is a collection of many different stars and all of their solar systems and big clouds of gas and dust in between, and then you zoom out even more and there’s other galaxies and you zoom out even more.

And there’s, the entire universe. So we can study all of these things. So in terms of those scales, the outer solar system is quite nearby yet we find it quite difficult to see it and to know much about it because it’s so faint. It’s not, it’s small. Things are small out there and, and therefore quite difficult to detect with telescopes, right?

Dan: [00:02:37] Yeah, absolutely. So we’ll chat to Amanda about this and find out how they do study these distant small objects.

Jacinta: [00:02:46] Yeah. And Amanda, as you said is also the head of instrumentation here at SAAO. So I guess what is instrumentation? What is an astronomy instrument? Presumably it’s not like a trumpet.

Dan: [00:02:57] Well sometimes they look a little bit like a trumpet.

So an instrument in terms of astronomy is something we’re using to take measurements. So we will describe a telescope as an instrument. But what we’re, really talking about here, with the head of instrumentation and the instrumentation department is the detectors and devices we used to take measurements.

So the way a telescope works is it is essentially a light bucket. It’s capturing photons, which are coming from space, and the bigger the telescope, the more photons you can capture, then we reflect those photons off a mirror to a focal point. And this can be done in various ways.

There are different designs of telescopes, but ultimately the goal is to direct these photons to an instrument and that instrument, depending on the science goal or the light we’re looking for will vary in its design and construction. So in the simplest case, such an instrument as a CCD, like the chip and your camera phone and that just takes light and records, it’s colour and brightness.

So those are simple instruments. But then obviously…

Jacinta: [00:04:11] And that creates just like an image like that we can see with our eyes typically.

Dan: [00:04:15] Yes. So that’ll create an image we’re observing a visible light and we’re capturing it. And as you know photography is, fairly easy these days.

Jacinta: [00:04:22] My instagram account would suggest that,

Dan: [00:04:24] But then when we’re trying to do science and learn as much as possible from this light, we sometimes like to look at the light in different ways. So we’ve spoken before about different wavelengths and how we would like to look at light as many different wavelengths as possible. But another way we can look at light is to split it up.

So we take a bucket of light, which we’ve captured and we split it into its constituent wavelengths. So we spread it out, over an instrument and find out how bright it is at each wavelength. And so in the visible spectrum, that means how much red light do we have? How much green light do we have? How much blue light do we have?

And by looking at that at very high resolution and in a lot of detail, we can learn a lot about what this light has come from.

Jacinta: [00:05:13] Yeah. It’s basically like a prism. If you imagine a prism and the light goes through that, and sometimes you can see the light split into the different colors of the rainbow.

If you just put a prism or something glass that the light can go through, out into the sun, you’ll see it creates a rainbow. And that’s essentially what we’re doing when we, with a spectrograph. When we create a spectra, we’re dispersing the light into the different   frequencies or the different wavelengths.

And then we’re measuring how much of each type of frequency there is.

Dan: [00:05:40] Yeah, absolutely.

Jacinta: [00:05:40] Sorry. I use the word frequency and wavelength interchangeably because I’m a radio astronomer, but that drives a lot of people crazy. The difference between a wavelength and frequency is a wavelength is the length of one

oscillation of the light, I guess. And you can measure that in meters or centimeters or millimeters or micrometres et cetera. And then a frequency is how many waves of this light pass per second. Because of course, we have the wave nature of light, as well as the particle nature of light.

But what we don’t need to talk about that today. That’s

confusing things a bit too much.

Dan: [00:06:18] Yeah. So We were fortunate to be joined by Amanda Sickafoose, as I mentioned earlier, and I sat down with her and asked her about her role here at the observatory and her research.

Jacinta: [00:06:28] Great.

Let’s hear from Amanda.

Dan: [00:06:29] Hello, Amanda.

Amanda: [00:06:36] Hi Daniel.

Dan: [00:06:38] And thank you for joining us today. So you are the head of instrumentation here at SAAO. What exactly does that entail?

Amanda: [00:06:44] Well, it’s a lot of management, but the best part of it is I get to lead a team of really wonderful technical people. So we’ve got electronic staff, we’ve got mechanical engineers, we have an entire mechanical workshop that builds amazing parts pieces.

And our primary job is to be building brand new astronomical instruments for this telescopes in Sutherland. But we also support the telescopes and the instruments that are currently there. So we have staff 24 hours a day who are available. If something breaks, it needs to be fixed. And we’re developing brand new instruments, modern, current things with new technology to be putting on telescopes out there now.

Dan: [00:07:21] So, I mean, obviously you don’t buy the instruments that we use off the shelf. So you developing these things from scratch.

Amanda: [00:07:28] Yeah, that’s right. If you think about, you know, your CCD that’s in your cell phone that you take pictures with, we can buy very high quality, very expensive chips like that, but we do a whole design process to put them in custom packages because they have to be vacuum-packed and they have to be cooled to certain temperatures so that the noise is low so that we can get the best data quality.

And so we do all of that on our own. All original designs, all the wiring, all the connections. And a lot of these things also have moving parts. You can imagine filters or shutters or things that need to move in and out of a light path. And so we do all of the control for those as well. And the software, everything is from scratch pretty much.

And every instrument is unique. So sometimes we can kind of reuse and design, but pretty much every time we build something, it has to be specific for that telescope and that science requirements. And so we’re never bored.

Dan: [00:08:19] No. Sure. And so what are the sort of projects you’re working on at the moment?

What are we? Looking forward to,

Amanda: [00:08:24] Right. In fact, right now we are working on a WiNCam, which is the Widefield Nasmyth Camera. And this is a visible wavelength imaging camera, that’s going to be going on the one-meter Lesedi telescope, the new telescope in Sutherland. And the idea there is that we want to be able to take pictures in different colors of a very wide field of the sky.

So we’re going to be able to see 43 arcminutes, which is much bigger than anything else we have in Sutherland at the moment. And so this is a six K by six six K CCD. It’s giant. You can, you know, the size of your hand if you hold it up. The biggest CCD we’ve ever worked with at the SAAO and that project has completed the lab testing.

It’s successfully gone through all the environmental tests and everything, and it’s supposed to go up on the telescope in February. So we’re really excited about that. We’ve got two other instruments in progress for that telescope, a low-resolution spectrograph that we’re collaborating with a group from Liverpool, John Moore’s University in the UK, and then a high-resolution spectrograph that we’re collaborating with Christian Schwab who’s at Macquarie University in Australia.

Dan: [00:09:21] What sort of science will this do? WiNCam.

Amanda: [00:09:22] That’s a good question. Like some of the other projects that the SAAO, it has a really long history. So it started, the concept of this instrument, started as a Newtonian focus camera for the 74-inch telescope. So, you know, that little carriage-way over at the top.

That’s the Newtonian focus. So it was supposed to go up there with a, I can’t even remember, maybe a 15-degree field of view. And the scientific case was that it would be able to image a bigger field of view than SALT. So it could be used as say, looking at fields so then you could develop slit masks for multi-object

spectrograph slits for SALT data. Or doing precursor information at, you know, with a smaller telescope. For something that you would then use SALT for it since then evolved. It went down to being well, could it be Cassegrain on the 74-inch? Well, now it could be Newtonian on the 74-inch. And then when we got the brand new telescope, we realized we had an opportunity for a much bigger field of view.

And we’re expecting things like looking at star clusters, so large areas of the sky, where normally you could only study a small portion at once and look at stellar oscillations or changes or things like that.

Dan: [00:10:24] So, this is not your area of expertise.

Amanda: [00:10:29] No, this isn’t one that I’m going to use.

Dan: [00:10:29] You do maintain an active research profile as well as all your management and instrumentation work.

Amanda: [00:10:36] I should. I do.

Dan: [00:10:36] Can you tell us a little bit about your research interests?

Amanda: [00:10:39] Sure. I am a planetary scientist. So that means I’m studying things that are within our solar system. In the last 20 years, planetary science has expanded to include planets outside of our solar system. That’s all brand new.

I don’t study those. I studied the ones we can actually reach with spacecraft. And the past few years I’ve been focused on objects in the outer part of the solar system. So Pluto, Kuiper belt objects, I’ve been involved in a survey that discovered more than 500 of those. And then we’ve been characterizing individual ones with different methods.

The primary method that I use these days is a stellar occultation. So we try and predict when these small bodies in the outer solar system will pass in front of a background star. So the star’s essentially a point source and you can watch that starlight as the object, say in this case, Pluto passes in front of it.

And then you can learn a lot about the object by observing that.

Dan: [00:11:27] How do you predict those?

Amanda: [00:11:29] It’s difficult. It sounds very simple, right? You’re just watching starlight as it kind of appears and disappears, but these objects are very small and they’re far away, which means their angular size is small.

So if you think of it as they’re casting a shadow across the Earth. Most of the time that shadow is a fraction of the Earth’s size. So you have to be in exactly the right place at the right time. And you have to have a telescope and an instrument that can record the event. And to predict it, you need to know the position of the object very accurately, and you need to know the star position very accurately. And with objects in the outer solar system, except for Pluto, which was discovered in the 1930s, we only discovered the next one in 1992, and it takes them hundreds of years

to thousands of years to go around the Sun. And so we’ve only observed a small part of the orbit, which means we don’t actually know their positions all that accurately. So we have to take a lot of observations and measure the astrometry. Measure the positions very, very accurately to predict them.

Dan: [00:12:21] But I mean, stellar occultations are not the only way you can observe these things.

Amanda: [00:12:25] No,

You can take, images, but most of them are very faint. So they’re faint enough that even SALT can’t observe them. And if you try and take spectra, that’s even harder because now you’re spreading the light. So the problem is that they’re just really faint and really small. And so the stellar occultations are the only way that you can get sizes down to say kilometer level accuracy, and that you can detect an atmosphere for example.

And in fact, we’ve been measuring Pluto’s atmosphere at micro-bar levels. So that’s a millionth of the Earth’s atmosphere. Right. And we’re measuring that. At 35 times the distance from the Sun that the Earth is.

Dan: [00:12:57] I wasn’t the way that Pluto had an atmosphere.

Amanda: [00:12:59] Of course it does, but you’re right. It was a shock to everyone when they found that it did because it’s cold and it’s tiny and yeah.

Dan: [00:13:07] It just seems so far away.

Amanda: [00:13:08] It is.

Dan: [00:13:08] And so rocky, like the moon or something.

Amanda: [00:13:12] Icy, Daniel. icy.

Dan: [00:13:14] Icy, sorry. Do we know the content of Pluto really, really well.

Amanda: [00:13:19] Sure, because when New Horizons flew past Pluto in 2015… but actually let me go back first. You were saying can’t we observe these in other ways. One of the ways we knew the content of Pluto prior to the spacecraft arrival was through taking spectra.

So Pluto is one of the brightest objects in the distant solar system. So we can take observations with telescopes like SALT. And by taking the spectra, you can see the reflection of surface ices. So we already knew that there was methane on the surface and nitrogen ice and water and things like that.

And the spacecraft confirmed that, that there are patches of methane ice and water ice, and yeah, nitrogen.

Pretty awesome

Dan: [00:13:56] stuff. And I mean, New Horizons has been in the news again recently. It did a fly by of another Kuiper belt object.

Amanda: [00:14:04] That’s right. It was very successful. You’ve probably seen the Pluto images all over the news in the past few years.

And the team successfully asked NASA to get extended funding so that they could continue on and go past the second object in the outer solar system. And it actually took a few years to find another object. You think right now, there are thousands of trans Neptunian objects that we know their positions.

So at any given time, you could point to telescope to them again, not accurately enough to predict a stellar occultation necessarily, but accurately enough that you can observe it. And none of those were in the path for the spacecraft to have enough fuel to fly by. And they finally found one in 2014. So it got the designation 2014MU69.

The only telescope that could observe it was Hubble because it was so faint. So we only have images of it from Hubble. So the only way to study it, other than using Hubble and taking images was to try and do a stellar occultation from the ground. And we had some success with that in 2017, before the flyby.

And of course, the fly- by happened January 1st of this year. And the images are going to take, I think something like 20 months to download. So we only have a few little pictures coming in online, but eventually, there’ll be a lot more.

Dan: [00:15:16] And then I gather that new horizons may be doing this again. I mean, it’s still got some fuel left.

Amanda: [00:15:20] They’re talking about it.

Yeah. But, they’re going to have to find another object and it was very hard to find this first one. So, but fascinating. Right? Because Pluto, revealed things, the spacecraft revealed things about Pluto that were really unexpected, you know, active geology and really interesting surface features and all kinds of stuff.

And this next body, MU69 is totally different. It’s only about 40 kilometers in size. And it looks almost like it’s a contact binary like two spherical objects ran into each other and just stuck very slowly. But it doesn’t have any of the active features that Pluto shows, no big ice patches or mountainous terrains or things like that.

And certainly no atmosphere. So it’s a totally different type of thing. And who knows what if we go past something else, what that might look like?

So we learn all this stuff from flying past it. Can we learn about, sort of, where it came from, or, I mean, how these trans-Neptunian objects are forming or have formed?


In fact, when I talk to people about why we study the outer solar system, that’s the fundamental question we’re trying to understand better how our solar system overall formed and evolved. And these are the keys to understanding how our solar system looked a billion years ago or 2 billion years ago or how it all ended up the way it is.

So these objects are so far away from the sun that they’re relatively unprocessed. So the materials are very fresh. They haven’t had the things happened to them that things have had coming into the inner parts of the solar system. Right. So they provide clues into the primordial constituents of the solar system.

And we’ve found correlations between say dynamical positions and colours of objects. And that allows us to kind of trace-back, did these things form as a group or did they start somewhere else and then move? And we know that there are models of solar system formation, like what the Nice model talks about the giant planets migrating.

And so we think a lot of these objects in the outer solar system actually formed closer in, and you can look at the materials and things to establish that. And as the giant planets moved out where they were swept outward. And so that can explain the different orbits that we see today. And some of that, the models do predict very well.

Other things they don’t so objects that are way out on highly eccentric orbits and things like that. We haven’t been able to figure out how those got there. But yes, we’re constantly looking for correlations between what things are made of which we determined by color. And when we’re, we’re lucky enough to have a spacecraft fly by, and then what their dynamical positions are.

Dan: [00:17:48] You mentioned that you don’t really study exoplanets, but, I mean, thousands of exoplanets have now been discovered, does this mean, this must help in terms of this understanding of how planets are forming.

Amanda: [00:17:59] It should, but you know, the things I’m telling you right now, we still don’t fully understand how our solar system was made.

And initially, you know, when I was in grad school, way back in the day, they talked about how there’s a very simple model that you would have earth-like planets evolving or forming closer to the sun, and then you have gas giants and it all nicely explained what we see here. Of course, once we started discovering other exoplanet systems, they don’t look like ours.

You have giant planets that are right next to the suns. You have double stars, you have all kinds of things. So. That was great. It blew our ideas out of the water. And so, no, I mean, it does contribute to us understanding those, but like this is our backyard and we don’t even understand it. So that’s all the more motivation for us to keep studying ours so we can then apply it.

But there’s so many interesting things going on in those other systems. And, I think the reason I say I don’t study them is because the, the techniques we use are really different. Those are still very distant objects. Whereas the things in our solar system are much closer and we can use different techniques to actually investigate them.

Dan: [00:18:57] Lastly, I just want to ask you about SAAO’s involvement in this. What sort of instruments are we using to do planetary science?

Amanda: [00:19:05] Right. So I think you talked to Nick Erasmus before about our asteroid programs and we use imaging cameras, the KMT net telescope, which is the 1.8-meter Korean telescope because it has a really wide field of view.

So if you have objects coming in like near-earth objects, you can, and if they’re moving very quickly or you don’t know the positions very well, having a wide field means you can catch them. And we use, of course, the SAAO telescopes, the 74 inch and the 40 inch and the one meter as well. We’ve done a little bit of work with SALT.

SALT is more difficult because of the fixed pointing and it doesn’t do non-sidereal tracking. So it tracks at the rate of the stars not the planets, which makes it difficult to, you know, keep an object still for long enough to get good data. We built a special set of instruments called SHOC Sutherland High-speed Optical Cameras, and those are optimized for doing these stellar occultations and they can be put on either the 74 inch, the 40 inch or Lesedi.

And what makes them optimized is that they have a very sensitive camera, so low noise and good cosmetics. And it can read out very quickly. So you have very little dead time. So normally if you’re taking an image, you have to obtain the image and then you read out the data and this one reads out the data extremely quickly.

So you can go from image to image and you never miss any of the light. And then we have it attached to a GPS. So you have very, very accurate timing. And often with occultations, you’re trying to get data from multiple sites so that you can basically probe the shadow at different locations on that body that’s causing the shadow.

And so the GPS also helps because you want to be able to line all of those up very accurately, both in terms of location and time.

Dan: [00:20:39] It’s fascinating stuff. Thank you very much for talking to us.

Amanda: [00:20:43] It’s a pleasure.

Dan: [00:20:44] Hopefully, we’ll chat again soon when something exciting is discovered. Absolutely. Thank you, Amanda.

Jacinta: [00:20:57] Awesome. It’s really cool to hear about exoplanets and how many we’re discovering these days. You know, just the fact that we’ve now discovered planets around other stars, which until, you know, a couple of decades ago, it was unheard of.

Dan: [00:21:11] Yeah. I mean as Amanda mentioned, we still don’t really understand how our Solar System formed and that’s something that she, and many other scientists, so we’re working actively on figuring out, but in the meantime, we’re discovering more and more of these planets in other solar systems.

So planets around other stars and that it has introduced a whole new field of astronomy, essentially, trying to understand how these planets have formed and how they evolve. And whether, I guess, some of them could harbour life.

Jacinta: [00:21:45] Yeah. I guess whether there’s anything that’s vaguely Earth-like. I remember a few years ago there was the Trappist system discovery.

Do you remember that?

Dan: [00:21:53] Yeah, of course. They’ve discovered various habitable zone planets. So planets that are existing around stars in a region where liquid water could exist and as we suspect life requires liquid water. So there’s a sort of fine range of a hundred degrees where the planet needs to lie.

So we found numerous systems, which this could be the case, but obviously finding a system and then finding life or two separate problems.

Jacinta: [00:22:27] Right, but we haven’t actually found water on another planet outside of our solar system yet.

Dan: [00:22:32] No, we haven’t, only on Mars and the Moon.

Jacinta: [00:22:35] And the Moon. Right? Okay, well talking about our Solar System and the strange bodies that are in it, we’re now going to have a completely different take on the same thing.

And that’s looking at this astronomy, this space, this science, but from an artist’s point of view, Dan you recently spoke to Vanessa Lorenzo.

Dan: [00:22:56] Yeah. So we were privileged to be involved in something called the artists-in-labs program. And what this program does is essentially takes an artist, somebody who works in a sort of quite exploratory realm of art.

So not the traditional artist that you’d think of in terms of painting and things, but sort of a more modern, technologically driven art. And these artists are essentially allowed to apply or encouraged to apply to this program where they get placed in a residency for three months in a working laboratory.

In this case, the observatory, and they get to explore their art and their ideas is through our instrumentation and our science. It was a fascinating experience and talking to Vanessa interacting with Vanessa and working with her was a completely novel way of looking at our science.

Jacinta: [00:23:50] And while Vanessa was here

she created  an installation that the public could go and see. Can you tell us a little bit about what that looked like and what was the idea behind it?

Dan: [00:23:59] Yes. So Vanessa’s idea was to look in particular at asteroids or rocks and talk about their story. So where they’ve come from where they’re going and what they’ve seen and how they could potentially communicate that to us.

So, as we’ve spoken with Nick in the past about how they characterize these asteroids and in terms of their light curves and their shapes, Vanessa explored this in a sort of, a more artistic way and imagined the rocks were talking to us and passing on that information, trying to tell their stories.

And her exhibition was really quite interesting. She collected a whole lot of rocks and installed light sensors inside them, and then connected the rocks to a sound which had been created from the light curve of an actual asteroid. So an asteroid had been observed. Its brightness had been observed as changing over time.

She related that to a sound. And when you interacted with the rock, so you waved your hand over it, the rock would talked to you, it would make the sound of a real asteroid or the sonification of a real asteroid’s light curve and, and you could kind of interact and imagine this, this rock telling its story and telling you where it’s coming from and where it’s been.

And it was a completely different approach to the science and to looking at these sorts of light curves and, and how we interact with the things we’re studying.

Jacinta: [00:25:26] Yeah, I thought it was absolutely fascinating. And it’s so cool to get a thoroughly different perspective on the same thing. And  it’s always wonderful to see how, if you can involve more people in the conversation about the same thing, how you can really get, you know, it can come alive in completely different ways.

And I think there’s a whole lot of value to that. I mean, this may resonate much stronger with, with some people than it does others. And I think that can only be a good thing.

Dan: [00:25:55] Absolutely. It’s just a great way to engage people in a different way and sort of make the science

we do a little bit more approachable and relate to some different part of the human psyche. It really was a wonderful experience and. We’ll post some pictures and videos of Vanessa’s exhibit on the website. So the listeners can take a look and experience it.

Jacinta: [00:26:16] Let’s play for you now some sounds of what the installation sounded like when Vanessa went, went around and demonstrated you know, making the rocks talk.

Dan: [00:26:24] So you can hear how the pulse of the rock would sort of rise and fall. And basically what that is is the asteroid rotating in space and therefore its brightness is changing. And from that, we can learn a lot about the asteroid, but then obviously turning it into a sound makes it rise and fall. And, and that’s what you were hearing.

It’s kind of eerie.

Jacinta: [00:27:23] It’s eerie. It’s really cool. Of course. That’s not what an asteroid sounds like in space, but it’s just the frequency of its motion translated into a sound, as you said, it’s a sonification process, but I think it’s a super cool representation.

Dan: [00:27:37] Yeah. So I did have a chance to sit down with Vanessa and chat to her about this.

So we should maybe listen to what she had to say about it.

Jacinta: [00:27:44] Yeah. Let’s hear from Vanessa.

Dan: [00:27:53] So we’re speaking with Vanessa Lorenzo. Hello Vanessa. Can you just introduce yourself and who you are and why you’re here?

Vanessa: [00:27:58]

My name is Vanessa Lorenzo. I’m here as part of the artists-in-lab program. It’s a South African-Swiss exchange. I’m working at the observatory in Cape Town.

Dan: [00:28:09]

What exactly is the artists-in-labs program?

Vanessa: [00:28:12]

So the artists-in-labs program is about artists working with art and science, or at the intersection of media/arts/science. And it’s a part of a meta-project, it’s a part of a research project conducted by the CDK in Zurich, in the Art school. A way to follow up the methodologies that artists pick up, appropriate, or follow in order to work in these kinds of environments.

Dan: [00:28:45]

How did you get involved in this program, what did you study?

Vanessa: [00:28:48]

I studied originally engineering and industrial design. After some years working in the industry, I started a Masters in Media Design. So it’s a Master of Arts in Media Design and Interaction in Geneva. After two years working in mostly biology and living organisms embedded in electronic media systems. I also happen to work with physicists at CERN as part of my master’s, and I received this open call. It was an open call to take part in this project focusing on astronomy and I thought it was a good idea to apply with a project I that started years ago. I got the grant and now I’m here.

Dan: [00:29:35]

So you say you started this project years ago, what exactly was the idea of the project and how has it evolved?

Vanessa: [00:29:42]

So I started building interfaces between humans and modern human. And the modern human is what I call whatever that is not human – let’s say a rock or a plant or bacteria. And how could technology can be used to unveil invisible interactions and potential interactions between these two agents.

So years ago I started a project about memories in rocks. And how technology could create a sort of interactive relationship with these rocks at night. I collected rocks from the Alps and I sort of collected stories related to the Alps and the bunkers. Different myths and horror stories about spirits and so-on. And I built a little interactive object that questioned traditional story telling.  Instead of using a book you use an object that is taken from another place and when you displace this object to your house or whatever public space, it’s carrying with it all the memories from that place. So this rock was once part of this mountain and now that we’ve extracted it we’ve also extracted also the stories with it.

And then I continued in different directions with other living beings like moss, with bacteria and so on, that really doesn’t have anything to do with this project but it was always using technology not as a commercial way, let’s say, or a super applied solution but as a way to explore new relationships and try to make bonds, or ties or bridges between this human and unhuman world.

And when I saw this open call I thought it would be great to come back to this original idea of working with rocks but with rocks from space. And instead of rocks coming from the Alps they will come from far away galaxies. So the question was what kind of stories would they tell and how can I work with astronomers in order to learn how they extract data and patterns and this characterisation process that they made  and how can I turn this into an installation and an object and how can I turn this into a story.

Dan: [00:32:11]

It’s fascinating stuff. So then you did turn it into a story, right? You’ve investigated asteroids and you’ve been working with Nick Erasmus who is studying asteroids as part of his work. Talk me through how you dealt with that data and started telling a story about the rocks.

Vanessa: [00:32:28]

At the beginning I was a little bit confused. At the beginning I didn’t want to narrow my focus so much on asteroids. So I was going around having conversation and interviews with different scientists and engineers at the observatory. I sort of made a list of what I call ‘exobodies.’ I wanted to understand what it means to be matter in space with different characteristics. What does it mean to be a supernova, or a ‘teenager’ star that is starting to live and blink and interact with all the stars, and what does it mean to be a black hole and how do they interact with each other. I just very quickly realised that this is super ambitious and a super vast field and that’s why we have astronomers to study each of them.

And very quickly I thought that asteroids are the best agents to focus on because they have this freedom to travel around. They also permit themselves to visit us every now and then, so every two years, every two hundred years. And it’s kind of also fascinating how humans or how astronomers, their task every day is to track these asteroids that will probably will be visiting us after we pass away. So it’s also this kind of timeline and this scale of time that fascinates me. So they carry stories in our generation but they also keep on visiting us every time our society and our planet keeps changing. So I was also thinking how could I also tell these kind of stories and changes in time.

Then I found Nicholas Erasmus who very attentively listened to these philosophical questions and could grasp very quickly what I was looking for. We sat for one hour and he explained to me in one hour all the stuff that he learned in the last three or four years and how he was part of this planetary alarm system to track meteorites and asteroids so they don’t hit us. That was pretty amazing because everything is connected through the internet. They talk to each other from different observatories, they share the data, they help each other in order to catalog or characterise the meteorite. And they are sort of also telling a story by doing this.

In the meantime, I also realised that we sort of use a very rebellic  language to talk about the asteroids. Like they are gonna hit us, they are gonna cause a mass extinction on Earth, and so on. But there are also other amazing effects of having these alien bodies entering the atmosphere and landing on Earth – landing or hitting the Earth, depending on the speed or the size. But they also carry organic compounds, they carry rare minerals. They could carry also alien bacteria, so this blows my mind. So this is also a message carrier, and thinking about media systems an asteroid could also be used as a way to send messages between galaxies and between planets.

Dan: [00:36:06]

That’s great. There are sound theories that a lot of the water on earth came from comets, for example, so we’ve collected that water over the years with these things impacting us. Or, I should use a softer word, I don’t know, visiting us. We were very privileged to see your small exhibit and interact with the rocks. It was a fascinating thing. So do you see this project continuing? Is it something you want to continue to evolve over the next couple of years and can we expect more?

Vanessa: [00:36:39]

Yes, I would like to continue it. Even though the outcome of this process that lasted three months was an interactive installation with sound, coming from light data coming from the asteroids. It was a sort of translation of light into sound through interactive rocks and sensors and different softwares. I think that the general process was always about unveiling the hidden interactions and the hidden dialogues, and it would be nice to also develop the other direction that I took. For example, I sort of created a 3D landscape in which rocks were placed in a certain place so we could produce or reproduce a ritual with the rocks in the Earth talking to the rocks in the sky. And this was done with a 3D program. I tried a VR headset, so the idea was also to show all of this work that I did but unfortunately didn’t have the time to develop. There were also other things that I couldn’t do. I couldn’t work deeply on the sound. And actually, there is a very interesting thing that working with Nicholas Erasmus also made me realise that this sound conversion could also be used to detect by hearing the kind of asteroid that we are looking at on the screen or the telescope. This could also have a practical application but to arrive at this sort of level I think that I need to sit down with the data and really develop the algorithm and play with the specific parameters that will make this happen.

Dan: [00:38:48]

For the listeners, is there somewhere online, do you have a website or Instagram, somewhere they can see some of your work and interact with you?

Vanessa: [00:38:57]

Yes, I do have a website. It’s hybridoa.org, so Hybridoa is also a concept that I named my project or my portfolio on the website like this because I think that I’m working at the crossroads of many disciplines, so media, art, science. It’s hard to categorise the work that me and the people like me are doing. So that’s why I called the site Hybridoa. You are welcome to visit and check it out.

Dan: [00:39:35]

Thank you very much. And thank you very much for your time and for visiting us.

Vanessa: [00:39:39]

Thank you very much for having me. It was such a pleasure and I felt super welcome. It was a life experience, I would say. Thank you.

Jacinta: [00:39:56] Yeah. As I said before, super cool perspective on the same thing that we work on, but from a completely different aspect, did it, Dan, did it influence the way you view your work at all?

Dan: [00:40:07] I think so.

It was really nice to have somebody sit down and think about the work, but in a completely open-minded way.

I think that often with science and with scientists, we’re all scientists, we’ve all gone through 10 plus years of training. And we’re trying to think in the same way to analyze problems in the same way and interact with data in the same way. And that is obviously very successful for the scientific method, but in terms of a sort of human appreciation for what we do and the incredible things we study

and what they can tell us. I think it looking at it in a different way in this case, listening to it is quite eye opening and refreshing.

Jacinta: [00:40:51] Yeah, definitely.

Dan: [00:40:52] Very cool. Well, I think that’s it for today’s episode. Thank you very much for listening and we hope you’ll join us again for the next episode of The Cosmic Savannah

Jacinta: [00:41:02] You can follow us @thecosmicsavannah.com.

That’s Savannah spelled S A V A N N AH, where we’ll have links related to today’s episode.

Dan: [00:41:12] Special thanks today to Dr. Amanda Sickafoose and Vanessa Lorenzo for speaking with us.

Jacinta: [00:41:18]  Thanks to Mark Alnut for music production. Janis Brink for the astrophotography and Lana Ceraj for graphic design used to create the podcast art.

This episode was created with support The South African National Research Foundation and The South African Astronomical Observatory.

Dan: [00:41:36]  We’ll speak to you next time on The Cosmic Savannah.

Jacinta: [00:41:43]  Next time on The Cosmic Savannah.

Dan: [00:41:44]  When we first realized there are planets. I think it was this general thought that, well, we’re on a planet. There’s another planet out there, maybe there’s life.

And it’s quite interesting to think that for much of humanity’s existence, probably people thought, Oh yeah, that’s reasonable that there’s something else out there.