Sonoma State University’s Aurore Simonnet brings cosmic creativity to role as scientific illustrator

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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.

Born in the small town of Saucats near Bordeaux, France, she remembers her daily life being infused with creativity and color.

From animals to the unique local church in her town, she drew inspiration from her surroundings, even delving into other hands-on art projects such as clay modeling and paper model making. And one of the biggest inspirations that stuck out was Astrapi, a French children’s magazine that boosted her imagination.

“When I was a kid, I was always trying to do oversized drawings with my colored pens or pencils for my parents,” she said.

And in tiny Saucats, the inky night sky allowed the stars and moon to shine as brightly as her aspirations. “My mom, when I was very little, used to tell me stories about Madame La Lune to help me go to sleep,” Simonnet said. “That she was up in the sky, hiding behind the trees playing hide and seek, and that made me want to look up at the stars.”

And she took every chance she got to read stories about astronomy while growing up.

“I always thought, wow, the distance. It’s so amazing and overwhelming –– hard to visualize and understand,” she said. “It’s such a mystery to me, and I was drawn to trying to know more about it.”

But schooling in France never allowed her to branch out creatively as much as she would have liked. So when she was 17, she took part in an exchange program, staying with a family in Iowa and attending high school, which showed her the variety of courses and opportunities available to American students. After finishing high school in France, she returned to the United States.

Simonnet ended up at Chabot college in Hayward studying graphic design. She was able to explore other art classes in addition to her graphic design emphasis, such as watercolor, and she started to realize that while graphic design was useful, it wasn’t very interesting to her. So she returned to some of the elements that inspired her as a child, using drawing classes to bring plants and animals to life on paper. So after she earned her AA in graphic design, she pursued a BA in physical science illustration from UC Santa Cruz -- a major she meticulously crafted on her own to blend her love of art and astronomy.

Shortly after graduating, Cominsky gave Simonnet the opportunity of a lifetime.

“She gave me that chance, and I am forever grateful for it. How often does one find a job in their field, and such a specific field in my case, right after college?” Simonnet said.

But Cominsky saw a flicker of light in Simonnet and her passion, and she said she was so impressed with Simonnet’s art portfolio that she hired her right away.

“Her college mentor suggested that she reach out to me, and I am eternally grateful that he did,” Cominsky said. “She is my most valuable employee and her outstanding illustrations have played a major role in the success of our group’s outreach efforts.”

One of Simonnet’s favorite educational projects, for example, was a creative webcomic series, called “Epo’s Chronicles,” published over the course of a few years starting in 2008, which uses a character named Alkina and her ship Epo to convey several science concepts that the department focuses on. Topics ranged from the Fermi and Swift missions, which try to observe gamma rays, to educational material about other celestial bodies and galaxies. “It was just fun because we had to convey real science, but at the same time we could go into a fantasy storylines, traveling into the universe,” Simonnet said. “That was awesome.”

And that’s the main inspiration that continues to motivate her work -- though her curiosity has always prevailed, she emphasized that she hasn’t always understood complex aspects of science.

“I also know that science isn’t easy to represent, especially astronomy. There is a large amount of stuff that we know and discover, but the only way to put an image to is by data graphing, mostly,” she said. “So I wanted to be able to help people who struggle with science...to be able to put an image to it.”

And in addition to her passion for education, her desire to understand the universe and explore the unknown sparks her creativity every day.

“It’s just this mystery — what’s out there, what does it look like, if we could see it, how beautiful would it be?”

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