Is there art on other planets?
I’ve recently spoken at several art museums in conjunction with the current tour of “NASA ART: 50 Years of Exploration”. The diverse range of artistic responses provoked by the space age, from Rockwell to Warhol, is –like space travel –both inspiring and dizzying. And as spacecraft, our distant orbiting eyes, continue their unblinking reconnaissance, artists continue finding new ways to help us assimilate the experience. In Colorado Springs the NASA show was paired with a major exhibition by Monica Aiello, a fine (in both senses) Denver artist who finds inspiration in the moons of Jupiter, studying the geologic processes that shape and color surfaces, mimicking or riffing off of them with materials and techniques which do not so much faithfully resemble the landscapes of other worlds as deeply evoke our responses to them. Her work is often shown with the biologically inspired metal sculptures made by her husband and partner-in-art Tyler Aiello, who studies plant forms, alters their scale and builds them out of intricately welded subunits, giving them a quasi-mathematical cellular structure which feels like alien life forms might feel – deeply foreign yet strangely familial.
I was asked to speak on the connection between astrobiology and art, and these artists made my job easy. Is there art on other planets? In one sense, obviously yes. Certainly we find art in the bursting flowers of Ionian volcanoes and the tangled roots of Europa’s cracked, icy surface. But why? Theories about art are like theories about life. Volumes have been written about the search for life even though nobody can define it well. (Besides, as Dr. McCoy might have said “dammit Jim, I’m an astrobiologist not an art critic!” ) Of course our Earth is beautiful to us and esthetically evocative. Our senses and minds evolved in response to this world. But what about other planets, places where no ancestor of ours has ever laid eyes or set foot, root or cilia? Something within us that recognizes the natural world also resonates with these alien vistas, because they are drawn from the same physics that runs our brains and rules all worlds. So it doesn’t surprise that we perceive art out there.
And I don’t think its coincidence that the places in our solar system, which seem most promising for astrobiology exploration, are also the most aesthetically evocative. Mercury and the Moon are dead. They are scientifically important but not as artistically inspiring as Titan and Mars. Flow and activity, phase transitions and complexity – these make for the most beautiful places, the most interesting to explore and the most likely to produce life. In the vast galaxy, which we now know is well populated with planets, will such active worlds inevitably, or at least occasionally, produce self-reproducing molecules, cells, complex organisms and all that may imply? Might there be other art makers out there? Our cultures are born of symbolic languages, including, in every human society, the making of art. Now that monkeys, crows and octopi have been found to also use tools, what is unique about us? Archaeologists use the presence of art in ancient sites to distinguish early humans from non-human ancestors. Art making does seem so universal in cultures, so intertwined with our other unique capacities that it makes me wonder if it might be Universal with a capital U – inherent in the evolution of a curious, communicating civilization. Or is it some local evolutionary peculiarity of our interacting brains? I’d like to think its something deeper than that, but as a scientist I’m obligated to be especially suspicious of any thought that I would like to think.
We often focus on the ability to build machines, and in particular radiotelescopes, as the hallmark of extraterrestrial intelligence, which is pragmatic, but perhaps suspect, since this criterion was invented by radio astronomers. We debate whether intelligence inevitably produces science and technology. We cite dolphins, swimming and singing with big brains but too streamlined for opposable thumbs, as an example of intelligence without technology. Dolphins don’t do art – at least not the brick and mortar variety. But do they have something analogous to choral music or poetry?
Perhaps, like life or intelligence, extraterrestrial art is something that we can’t define but can still search for and hope to recognize and understand. Which leaves room for misunderstandings of cosmic proportions.