Sonoma State University’s Aurore Simonnet brings cosmic creativity to role as scientific illustrator
Black holes. Collisions in space. Astronomical phenomena happening billions of light years away, some of it recorded on data instruments, but invisible to the human eye. How could someone possibly illustrate what these phenomena might actually look like, in a way that shows the public what the scientific community sees? That’s where artist Aurore Simonnet comes in.
Simonnet, who lives in Santa Rosa, is a scientific illustrator who works for Education and Public Outreach (E/PO) at Sonoma State University, a group that works to develop educational materials for teachers and students, as well as enhance science literacy for the general public. It also helps develop material for researchers like the ones from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), who recently asked Simonnet to illustrate a public announcement on some esoteric findings: the merger of two black holes with a combined mass of 50 times that of our sun -- spinning in opposite directions, some 3 billion light-years away. The illustration, which shows the two bodies swirling around each other in opposite directions, ended up in the New York Times with a June 1 article.
“What makes me happy is when whatever representation I come up with, lands close to what they had in mind and helps other non-scientists understand what’s going on,” Simonnet said.
Simonnet, 42, has the unique task of portraying to the public eye things that even astronomers haven’t directly observed or photographed, but know about only through detailed instrument readings. She goes back and forth with scientists to make sure she understands the science. Then she weighs the possibilities -- visualizing a light source and its direction, picturing how matter could swirl around and analyzing what color it would be when light hits it.
“That’s where my imagination comes in,” she said. “It’s all a mystery, but my goal is to attempt to put an image to it, no matter what it takes ... being somewhat artistic, looking pretty and realistic, hopefully.”
And the picture she paints in her mind right away, she said, is often the one she sticks with. Her website, named “Aurorealis,” features an array of colorful images that look like something out of a science-fiction fantasy, all the more compelling because they are based on scientific data.
“I often joke that you can just say something to her like ‘draw a black hole warping space and time’ and not only does she know what I mean, she can visualize the representations of incredibly abstract objects as things of beauty,” said Lynn Cominsky, the director of E/PO, who created the group in 1999.
Simonnet has managed to impress the scientists as well.
“It takes a special blend of talents for the illustrator to have a high level of science literacy to translate our rantings into something both visually appealing and accurate,” said Tyson Littenberg, the lead of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center LIGO group. “It’s a bit cliche, but a picture is worth a thousand words, and when those words are very technical I think it’s value is even more so.”
Simonnet said she often pretends to travel through space and time via her computer -- drawing intricate images and zooming close, immersing herself into a “beautiful cosmic place” and the night sky that she’s been drawn to her entire life.