Patt Morrison Asks

Dan Goods, JPL's science seer

Everyone should have the opportunity to have a moment of awe about the universe. If I can create that, then I feel I've been successful.

Scientists are always particular and careful about accurate descriptions of their work. How do they react to your interpretations?

I'm always a little nervous, but I've always had a good reaction. Sometimes their inner geek comes out: "How did you do that?" These are huge problems these people are working on, really difficult and technical, and sometimes they forget about the big picture. So when I show them something, they're like, "Yeah, that's why I'm doing this." Now people come to me when they want something from a different perspective. They say, "Oh, we should just go talk to Dan."

What do you have coming up?

Juno is going to fly past Earth [to get to] Jupiter. It's called gravity assist. The day Juno makes its closest approach before being slingshotted [by Earth's gravity] out to Jupiter [is] Oct. 9, 2013. I'm brainstorming with others on an event for this moment. Juno is going to orbit Jupiter 33 1/3 times. [I'm] imagining a musical project related to Juno's 33 1/3 orbits.

You have a project for DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to make a disaster rescue robot — there's a model right here in your work space — seem non-threatening.

We don't want to scare the bejesus out of someone it's coming to save. One [consideration] is color, another is shapes — should you soften them? Right now it's very hard-edged. It looks like a four-legged AT-AT from "Star Wars" that's going to shoot you. We've been looking at pictures of St. Bernard dogs. Can you give [the robot] droopy eyes or something that could be friendly? What should it sound like? Is it a deep kind of "rrrrrr"?

You help the JPL scientists make their pitches to NASA for projects too.

It's like producing an event. The scientists write a huge report, just huge. NASA sends questions one week before they bring 30 people, and you have to convince them that what you're doing is worthwhile and you can do it on budget. You have seven hours: You give them a one-hour tour, a one-hour lunch, and they leave.

I work on choreographing the event. I try to think of all the non-technical things. The report cover for the project to study trees. Trees are the lungs of the Earth [he drew a pair of topiary lungs]. The cover for the icy worlds project, like comets: images of water freezing in a Ping-Pong ball.

Not all of your projects have been for JPL. You collaborated on pieces for the airports in Atlanta and San Jose. Describe the one in San Jose.

It's thousands of pieces of liquid crystal, and they become transparent and opaque with a little electricity. We take real-time weather from around the world and [change the pattern] every 20 seconds; if it's raining somewhere, it looks like it's raining [inside the airport].

What's in this acrylic container? Looks like sand and glitter.

You've heard of the Drake equation, right? Frank Drake was one of the founders of SETI, and he had this equation. The basic idea is how many stars you think there are, how many of those have planets, how many of those have Earth-like planets, and how many of those have been around long enough to have life on them, [and] long enough to communicate. Even if you put tiny numbers in, there should be thousands of communicating civilizations out there. The sand represents stars, the silver glitter represents stars with planets and blue is stars with earthlike planets.

Was this your kids' glitter, or is it industrial-grade?

I'm still finding glitter around.

Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes 

This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at





Look for this special section in your
Baltimore Sun newspaper on Dec. 29, 2013.
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