Sounds of silence

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Most of what I know about how humans wrangle hardware in outer space I learned from the movies.

"Hidden Figures" taught me that although NASA hired a brilliant mathematical corps of African American women to launch rockets and bring them back, the feds wouldn't let them go to the bathroom (plot summary). "First Man" taught me that NASA had little confidence in its ability to return the Apollo 11 moon walkers home intact. "Alien" taught me that in space, no one can hear you scream.

On Saturday at The Huntington, I learned how NASA scientists express their artistic soul.

A friend and I went to San Marino primarily to see what the Library had on rotating display. We were amazed by the painstakingly illuminated rendition of Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales," circa 1400; by the stately ochre signature of ALincoln concluding a letter written during the Civil War; by the contemporaneous code-breaking manual known by only 12 people waging bloody battle.

At the Art Gallery, we hoped to witness the restoration of Thomas Gainsborough's "The Blue Boy," which is happening in real time as visitors walk by. But the satin-clad teenager and his makeover artist were nowhere to be seen -- the excruciatingly granular work is performed only on Thursdays, Fridays and one Sunday per month, and your faithful correspondent had failed to do her research. Portraits of 18th-century rich people who commissioned artists to make them look as though God sought their counsel aren't really my thing, but the effort required to maintain their sublime appearance is.

My friend, who had been to The Huntington a few weeks earlier, suggested a visit to the Orbit Pavilion, where NASA had constructed an otherworldly structure in which the sound of satellites sailing high above the planet, he said, are replicated for your terrestrial enjoyment.

He had it half right. The slatted pavilion is a gorgeous, hollow, aluminum-skinned spiral 17 feet high, 28 feet in diameter and open at the top. It must admit light and air so that the sound doesn't bounce around in a cacophonous mess. Inside, a series of speakers emit squeaks, hums and creepy sounds like what you get banging a Tibetan singing bowl. As you walk around this peculiar aural universe, some speakers offer animal noises, trees in wind, crashing waves, the human voice...

It's all bunk. Scientists made up this stuff -- remember, sound is created by friction, by atoms and molecules vibrating in a medium, like air or water; because there's no air in outer space, no way to convey a noise, there is no sound (see: "Alien").

A team of "visual strategists" from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory conceived the Orbit Pavilion. One member is Dan Goods, who was valedictorian of his class at Pasadena's ArtCenter. Right brain, meet left brain.

Each sound in the pavilion reflects one of 18 NASA satellites studying earth science, and the International Space Station. It's a two-part symphony by team member/composer Shane Myrbeck. One part reflects a day's worth of compressed satellite trajectory data as a chorus of 19 different satellite sounds. Part two reflects the actual position of the spacecraft, as each satellite vocalizes in sequence.

The team hoped to capture a sense of NASA's satellite research into natural phenomena such as storms, droughts, ocean and wind currents. You hear the "music" as its respective satellite muse appears hundreds of miles directly over your head. The point is to connect mere Earthlings with the greater cosmos, and it's an arranged marriage of fact and fiction that works just fine.

Orbit Pavilion is at The Huntington through Sept. 2, 2019.

Photo: Ellen Alperstein


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