“The images serve as portals to go into space,” says astronomer and artist José Francisco Salgado. He earned LSA graduate degrees in astronomy (M.S. 1994, Ph.D. 2000), and since then has launched himself into a career of science outreach and art.
“In astronomy, the richness of visual material is very high,” he says. “There’s so much content in a single photograph.”
Salgado learned the power of his photos while teaching classrooms full of nontraditional students. “I was teaching astronomy to full-time working adults who were getting degrees in business, and they were required to take astronomy as an elective,” he explains. He noticed that when he showed the students photographs from his trips, they’d stay awake and pay attention, so he started describing in his classes the sights he’d seen while traveling for research. The textbook chapters, with their abstract lists of cosmic objects, became much more real when he talked to people about his own experiences.
He’d punctuate the syllabus with photos from his trips to observatories around the world, including Chile, South Africa, and Antarctica. Students would say, “Wait a minute—you were there last week, and you took this photograph? Tell me about it!”
This breakthrough in teaching led Salgado to create a nonprofit organization that uses the arts to communicate science. He named it KV 265, after the catalog number for the Mozart piano variations used in “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
Working at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Salgado produced his first video project. The Chicago Sinfionetta had approached him to collaborate on a visual backdrop to accompany their performance of Gustav Holst’s famous orchestral suite, The Planets. They probably were expecting a slideshow, Salgado says, to go along with a bullet-point lecture about astronomy to preface the music.
What they got instead was an elaborate video that incorporated archival diagrams showing an early—and in parts, incorrect—understanding of the solar system, paired with equally striking contemporary satellite images of the planets. Salgado spent six months making it. His film production style, he says, “gives you the illusion that the music is the soundtrack to the film.”
How to Shine
“When I was a kid, I knew that I had artistic inclinations, but I was looking for the right medium to express myself,” Salgado says. A “huge music geek,” he played bass guitar in a rock band, wrote songs and poetry, and tried out graphic design as he was growing up. “I think I found my voice by making films.” He also loved outer space.
In LSA, he found outlets to meld his interests in art and science. “Back in the ’90s, we had a project called ‘Image of the Month,’ where we would produce a leaflet of research done in the astronomy and physics departments,” Salgado remembers. The leaflets were printed in color and sent to hundreds of science classrooms in Michigan. “The idea was that teachers could share them with their classes and say, ‘This is research done at the University of Michigan. Let’s see which image they’re featuring. This is something that perhaps you could do.’”
After graduating, Salgado brought that idea to the Adler Planetarium, where he combined education, public outreach, and astronomy research. School funding shortages, especially for arts courses, and lagging science scores in the United States inspired Salgado to develop a school program in Chicago that taught kids about the physics of sounds and music. He earned an Emmy Award nomination for an astronomy television show he hosted on Univision called Nuestra Galaxia. He has presented “Science & Symphony” concerts more than 130 times in 15 different countries, along with Antarctica. And he’s worked with 1980s pop star Tom Bailey, famous for his band the Thompson Twins, setting films to Bailey’s original music and organizing performances across the country.
Salgado’s most recent project through KV 265 is a series of films about Aurora Borealis, those dazzling collisions between sun flares and the Earth’s magnetism known to most as the northern lights. Twice a year, Salgado goes to Yellowknife, Canada, to capture an unobstructed, photogenic view of the swirling colors in the sky. He already has produced a few films about the northern lights set to symphony music. “I’m running out of excuses to come to Yellowknife,” Salgado says, “so I’ve started offering tours there.” The tours Salgado leads are another way for him to spread his excitement and passion for astronomy, along with lessons in photography. “Creativity not only drives art—it drives science, as well,” he says. “You have to think creatively to solve a problem or explain something in nature.
“We’re a society that depends so much on science and technology, yet we don’t always understand it,” Salgado says. “In some parts of society, people mistrust science, even though they rely on it on a daily basis.” One solution to this disconnect, he’s convinced, is using music and film as non-intimidating ways to bring science to new audiences.
“Pardon the pun, but astronomy is universal. The sky is available to everyone,” says Salgado. “You can enjoy the night sky without knowing a single thing about what the heck is going on up there. You can see the northern lights and enjoy them without understanding the physics. That’s what most people do—they’re watching in awe.”
But it doesn’t have to stop there, he says. Using his camera as both a scientific instrument and an artistic tool, Salgado wants the stunning images he collects to stick with people. “This is hopefully the inspiration for you to actually learn more about what you’ve seen. There’s additional beauty in being able to understand and explain nature.”
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