South Pole Telescope exhibit headed for Washington, New York

Visitors to the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C. will get a taste of the South Pole Telescope when a traveling exhibit comes their way on April 28-29. The University of Chicago’s Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics will present the exhibit, “100 Years of Exploration @ South Pole: From Survival to Science,” which was produced by a studio class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Part of the exhibit will appear at the World Science Festival, which takes place May 30 to June 3 in New York City, including the June 3 World Science Street Festival in Washington Square Park.

The exhibit was a class project led by Bo Rodda, an adjunct professor of the SAIC’s department of architecture, interior architecture and designed objects. He also is a building intelligence and energy efficiency specialist at Argonne National Laboratory, which is a member of the SPT collaboration.

“The students, for the most part, all signed up for the class because they are naturally interested in space and science,” said Rodda, whose class met with scientists at UChicago and Adler Planetarium before designing the exhibit.

"Artists and scientists have much more in common than most people would think. At the root of what drives us, I feel, is an insatiable curiosity about the world and a desire to discover. When artists and scientists begin to work together, amazing things happen,” he said.

South Pole milestones

Exploration and research at the South Pole passed a milestone on Dec. 14, 2012, the centennial of Roald Amundsen’s arrival at the South Pole. The SPT also has passed a milestone, having obtained some major results while completing its initial large survey of the sky. UChicago leads the SPT collaboration, which includes a dozen institutions worldwide.

“These all motivated the notion of looking for ways to share this with broader audiences: to allow them to explore the unique research environment that the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station offers, and to share in the excitement of discovery,” said Randy Landsberg, the Kavli Institute’s director of education and outreach.

The Kavli-SAIC collaboration sprouted from the 2007 Chicago Festival of Maps. The institute organized a five-day meeting in connection with the multi-institutional festival titled “Cosmic Cartography: Mapping the Universe from the Big Bang to the Present.”

The involvement of both institutions in the festival led to a series of collaborative projects, including two UChicago Brinson Lectures at the Art Institute last year, one featuring Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, the other spotlighting Nobel laureate John Mather.

In another joint project, this spring the Art Institute also is offering a course titled “The Leading Edge of Astrophysics,” taught by Kathryn Schaffer, a senior researcher at KICP and member of the SPT science team. A series of Kavli postdoctoral scientists have presented guest lectures about their current research as part of the course, then took questions from the students.

Surveys given before and after the presentations document how the presentations may have changed the perceptions that the art students had about scientists. The postdocs also took surveys to record how their interactions with the students may have changed what the scientists viewed as important about communicating their work to a lay audience.

Joint conversations on art and science also are in the offing in an initiative led by SAIC President Walter E. Massey, a former physics professor and vice president for research at UChicago, who also has served as director of Argonne and of the National Science Foundation.

Enhanced outreach

“We look for things that are of interest to both groups, and this year it came up that the South Pole Telescope collaboration wanted to do more outreach,” said Landsberg, who took the exhibit idea to Doug Pancoast, chairman of SAIC’s architecture department.

“We had originally just asked for a simple outdoor photography exhibit. We were thinking 10 nice photos mounted, and these guys came up with this engaging interactive exhibit, which is fantastic. The entire process was a wonderful collaborative experience that engaged both the artists and the scientists, and produced a tangible result,” Landsberg said.

Exhibit visitors will have the opportunity to don a heavy jacket, gloves and boots and get photographed in front of a giant backdrop of the ceremonial South Pole. At a nearby multi-touch table, visitors also can use their fingers to manipulate electronic images taken at the South Pole and view SPT data.

Leul Bezane, a fourth-year in physics at UChicago, programmed the touch table and formatted its images. Bezane works as a research assistant in Adler’s Space Visualization Laboratory and at the Kavli Institute, where he helps program galaxy simulations for Nick Gnedin, associate professor in astronomy & astrophysics.

The rest of the exhibit, though, was the work of the students.

“We had a real client, with real needs, with a real budget, and very, very real deadlines,” said Rodda. The students brought interdisciplinary backgrounds to the project, spanning architecture, interior architecture, object design (industrial design), graphic design, education and even sculpture.

“Everyone had a vital role to play and working together they made an incredible exhibit. I am extremely proud of what they have accomplished and I know they are, too,” Rodda said.