Dan Goods, JPL's science seer

When artist Dan Goods arrived at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, they gave him a six-month shot. In May, he'll have been there 10 years as JPL's "visual strategist." He glued soda bottles to the roof of his Taurus to create music on an m.p.h. pipe organ. At JPL, his "Out There" sign (recycled computer-box parts) conjures the infinite in a meeting space and plaster hands he installed in the library hold curious objects. He once drilled a hole through a grain of sand to demonstrate the size of our galaxy, and then put that grain of sand in six rooms of sand that represent the universe. Anything to make abstract science into something you can see.

You came to L.A. for the arts education and stayed for the science. How did that happen?

I was born in Alaska and grew up in Oregon and lived in Seattle. L.A. was the last place on Earth I'd imagined I'd be, but I wanted to go to Art Center College of Design. I told my wife there were three things I could imagine doing: starting a teahouse, joining the Peace Corps or going to Art Center. Coming down the 210 there's a sign that says "Art Center College of Design," and the next one says "NASA-JPL." I went, "Wow, this is where I want to be!

Were you a science guy in school?

I had like a 2.98 [grade point average] in high school. I slept through my math classes.

It sounds like you got the science education here that you didn't get in high school.

I ask a lot of questions. I've always been interested in science because it has big crazy ideas that can change our lives and our perspective on ourselves. I get together with the scientists and they tell me what their mission is about. And I'll say, "Is this what you mean"? I'm always trying to uncover the essence of something. Once you find the essence, you can play with that concept. If I can figure it out, I can show other people about it.

What sort of projects have you done?

One is called "Hidden Light." It's about finding planets around other stars [inspired by NASA's Kepler Mission, which is searching for planets in habitable zones]. It's like trying to find a firefly in front of a spotlight if it's in New York and you're in L.A.

Stars are big and bright, and the planets you're looking for are small and dim. I have a super-bright projection against the wall, and it looks like a sun. Then I have a really dim movie projecting [planet images] at the same wall. People see this bright, pixelly sun; people walk up and inside their shadow it reveals the dim projections.

It's about trying to find a dim light in the midst of a bright light. I love the theme of seeing the unseen.

You created a piece that's touring called "Beneath the Surface" that was inspired by NASA's ongoing Juno mission to Jupiter, which isn't so much a planet as a giant gas cloud.

You walk into this room that represents the surface of Jupiter. You hear thunder and lightning — you don't see lightning but you hear it. There are giant lightning storms on Jupiter. The mission is going to figure out how deep the storms go.

I put a lot of infrared lights underneath a cloud made with tap water. You place an ultrasonic mister in water and it vaporizes the water into a beautiful mist. Cellphones can pick up infrared light, and you can see the lightning storm through [the cloud with] your cellphone. The scientists came down and stayed for half an hour watching how the clouds worked. I had to, like, get out of here.

Your work isn't illustration. It's about the concept.

Over the past 50 or 80 years people [did] futuristic drawings of space. That inspired a lot of the people who are here. They were all under their covers looking at comic books, and now they're here making it happen. I'm creating different experiences.

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 latimes.com/pattasks.

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