Out of this World: Dan Goods, Visual Strategist for NASA

Recent news out of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)—a vast complex nestled in the hills of Pasadena, California—emerges from information collected by the Cassini spacecraft's infrared mapping spectrometer instruments and indicates that, for the last four years, Saturn has been emitting less energy. In short, the colorful planet is acting like a “cosmic lightbulb on a dimmer switch.”

In case it's not obvious, the “cosmic lightbulb” analogy is not scientist-speak. Instead, it illuminates a formidable analysis of data tied to temperature, heat radiation and invisible waves, and constitutes JPL's attempt to help the rest of us (nonscientists) understand what's going on in outer space.

Stereo image of mountains on Mars. (JPL/Caltech)

Stereo image of mountains on Mars, from “Data + Art,” a show co-curated by Dan Goods for the Pasadena Museum of California Art. (JPL/Caltech)

JPL works hard to make its scientific information comprehensible to lay audiences, and Dan Goods, trained as a graphic designer at Art Center College of Design, has the enviable job of visualizing the often complex and highly abstract work of astrophysicists across a variety of platforms and venues. Moving well beyond linguistic metaphors, Goods makes the information visual, tangible and embodied through various installations. Recent projects designed by Goods include recreating the roiling, multicolored clouds of fog that surround Jupiter using ultrasonic water foggers, fans and infrared illuminators in a very large tank; representing the vast number of galaxies in our universe in six big gallery rooms filled with sand for a project called The Big Playground; and, in a project called Hidden Light, illustrating the play of light and darkness in determining what we can discover in space with large-scale projected video, a powerful white light splayed over that projection, and shadows to reveal what's unseen in the light.

(Top) Dan Goods and his bottle project; (bottom) sketches for Goods' bottle project.

(Top) Dan Goods, using empty soda bottles and his car to create music; (bottom) images from Goods' sketchbook.

“It all started with soda-pop bottles,” explains Goods, recalling a definitive moment in his studies at Art Center when an instructor demanded that he stop being so practical. “Go play,” the mentor commanded, and Goods did just that, using a collection of glass bottles from the celebrated soda pop shop Galcos, located in LA's Highland Park. “The bottle is what makes the soda good,” asserts Goods, who began making sculptures from the bottles, then added lights, and lined the bottles up across the tops of buildings. “Then I started thinking about the noise the bottles could make,” says Goods, who crafted a bottle xylophone, and then taped clusters of bottles together and put them on top of his car. “Eventually I got the right angle and distance, between 30 and 35mph, and I thought it could be great for a taco stand truck so that you'd hear the music as the truck moved.”

In the project, Goods explored the full array of potentials in his material, and discovered that he really liked the process. He enrolled in a summer research program that involved visualizing scientific data with an artist working in collaboration with scientists. Admitting that these unions can often be fraught, Goods says that instead the experience was good. “It was the semester before my graduation, and I thought I could either go work for an ad agency, or I could work with big ideas.” Around the same time he took a tour of JPL and had the fortune of meeting JPL's director. “I said, 'It would be really cool working with you guys, brainstorming mission concepts,'” says Goods, and the director agreed to accept his résumé. Goods sent his résumé, and continued to inquire, and eventually was able to show the director his bottle project. “He said that the project seemed cool,” and gave Goods a shot. “'You have six months,' he said. I've been there for eight years.”

Dynamic sculpture eCLOUD at the San Jose International Airport (photo: Spencer Lowell)

Real-time weather-visualizing sculpture eCLOUD, by Dan Goods, Nik Hafermaas and Aaron Koblin, at the San Jose International Airport. (photo: Spencer Lowell)

With characteristic humility Goods claims that he doesn't really know how to do anything. “I just ask a lot of questions, and then I try to understand the real intent behind the science,” he says. In actuality, Goods is a skilled collaborator who works not only with scientists but with artists, programmers and technologists to make the various projects for JPL. He also boasts a body of personal work that similarly strives to visualize complex ideas in beautiful ways. He has curated exhibitions of information visualization projects, and his most recent personal project is eCLOUD, made in collaboration with Nik Hafermaas and Aaron Koblin and installed between Gates 22 and 23 in the San Jose International Airport. The project displays real-time weather data from around the world on hundreds of polycarbonate tiles that change their opacity based on the data to visualize the wind, rain and clouds in different places; the result is an exquisite visualization of the weather across the tiles suspended over airport walkway.

Goods connects his current job as JPL's visual strategist to a passion for play and the desire to work with big ideas. The rest seems to have followed quite easily, but that assumption obscures the fact that Goods harbors a keen design sensibility, a sense of perseverance driven by curiosity, and an understanding of the unique potential of collaboration. And the fact that he works with the vast expanses of space and time probably adds a sense of perspective regarding what, in the end, is truly important.

Further exploration

See Dan Goods' presentation at the2009 Los Angeles Ideas Project conference. 

Visit the eCloud website.