Dr Tyler Nordgren has a most ethereal job title. As Night Sky Ambassador for the U.S National Park Service he is responsible for promoting astronomy education and encouraging the public to see natural nocturnal landscapes in unspoiled environments where 'Half the park is after dark.' As an artist as well as as scientist, he creates atmospheric posters that capture the mysterious beauty of the night sky within these magnificent American landscapes. PRN spoke to Dr Nordgren about his fascination with dark skies and his cross-over role as both artist and scientist.
All poster images courtesy of Tyler Nordgren.
PRN: Was it always your ambition to pursue a career in astronomy?
TN: I had wanted to be an astronaut when since I was 5-years old. I wrote letters to NASA asking about the requirements (and if they could send me any cool photos) and was always delighted when great big thick envelopes of space photos and astronaut information showed up in my mailbox. This was the late 1970s before the internet made all of this readily available at the click of a mouse. Somewhere in college, my love of science made astronaut turn into astronomer.
PRN: Would you describe yourself primarily as a scientist or an artist - or do you prefer not to distinguish between these titles?
TN: I go back and forth between the two titles. Right now, I'd say I'm primarily an artist. But in 8 months my book on solar eclipses, "SUN MOON EARTH: A history of solar eclipses from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets," will be published and so I will be a scientist again. Maybe my best title is science-populariser. Sometimes I do this through writing, sometimes photography, sometimes through drawings and posters.
PRN: How much does science influence your art?
TN: Science absolutely influences my art. I wouldn't know what to draw, or where to go to photograph if I didn't know the science. I have taken photos that were three-years in the making because I knew I wanted to have the Milky Way, crescent moon and waterfalls all in exactly the right spot at the right moment.
PRN: Are you an anomaly within your specialty being an artist as well as a scientist?
TN: It is a rarity. I know lots of astronomers and scientists who are also artistic, the process of science is very creative. Given the time constraints on being a professional scientist though, doesn't leave a lot of time to pursue an artistic career. The astronaut Alan Bean of Apollo 12, the fourth man to walk on the moon is a very accomplished professional artist, but I think much of his artistic output was after he was no longer an artist.
PRN: What is your greatest achievement in your career at this stage?
TN: I was part of a group of 7 artists and astronomers who worked to convert the color calibration target on NASA's Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity rovers into working sundials. We call them Marsdials. They show the local time and seasons on Mars (in addition to showing what different colors and shades of grey look like under the Martian sunlight and in shadow). They also carry a message of purpose for why we explore other worlds. It was a real honor to be asked to help out with it and now I can look up into the sky at night, see Mars, and know something I helped create will exist long after we are all gone here on Earth. A part of me made it to another world after all.
PRN: How did your role as Night Sky Ambassador to USA’s National Parks come about?
TN: I saw a ranger talk in Yosemite National park where he talked about the importance of protecting night skies for the visitors. Afterwards, I introduced myself and said that as an astronomer I loved the idea of reaching out the park-going public through what they could see on clear dark nights in the parks. I then created a sabbatical project where I spent 14 months traveling through the parks, giving talks, taking photos and researching what became my first book, "Stars Above, Earth Below: a guide to astronomy in the national parks."
PRN: Do you have a favourite night sky view?
TN: I love seeing the Milky Way. In Grand Canyon national Park, when viewed from within the canyon it arches from one rim to the other. I love that.
PRN: Is space travel an ambition of yours - and if so, do you see this as a real possibility?
TN: No, not anymore. At 46 I am too old.
PRN: What do you consider to be the greatest scientific breakthrough of all time?
TN: I'd say Einstein's Special and General Theories of Relativity. They opened our eyes to the fact that the Universe is far stranger than we ever imagined.
PRN: If you could have the answer to any question in relation to the Universe, what would it be?
Is there intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe. I am dying to know.
PRN: What’s next for you in your career?
TN: Right now I am busy promoting the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse that will cross the entire US. No one has seen a total solar eclipse in the US since 1979 and today, 9 million people live within the band of totality. I want to make sure every single one of those people gets the chance to step outside for at least two minutes and see the most awe-inspiring sight you can see from Earth, when the Moon fully covers the disk of the Sun and the sky turns dark and the stars come out at noon. It is magical.