"Space Oddity," atoms, and the intersection of science and art

By Richard Nieva , written on May 13, 2013

From The News Desk

I've viewed two videos recently that took my breath away. One gained traction yesterday: a lonesome lament from an astronaut in space, performed by an actual astronaut in space. Canadian commander Chris Hadfield posted a video on YouTube of himself singing a cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” while on the International Space Station. The other was “the world’s smallest movie,” as IBM Research puts it. The R&D organization animated still frames of atoms from carbon monoxide molecules, magnified more than 100 million times. It tells the story of a boy finding companionship with an atom.

The two videos were released independently, from different organizations, but they are wonderfully complementary. One video looks out at the vastest chunks of mass in existence – the planets and the stars – while the other looks down to the tiniest units of matter, manipulated by the hand of human ingenuity; the same ingenuity that brought Hadfield millions of miles out into space to be among the stars and peer onto our planet. The two videos are breathtaking on their own, but are even more notable when considered together: Science has enabled the kind of art we’ve never before seen.

Technology has always been at the forefront of enabling art. After all, the paintbrush was a cutting edge new tool at one point, and Impressionism owes its existence, in part, to the technology that preserved premixed paints in tubes, which allowed artists to dispense with mixing each color individually – and using it before it could dry out. And yes, the C and the G in CGI animation, the form that has dominated major animated features for almost two decades, stand for “computer generated.” But that’s not what I’m talking about. Almost everything we do these days is enabled by computers.

No, I’m talking about science as an enabler and theme. It goes beyond science fiction. It’s science reality.

What’s even better, the science in these videos is the stuff of grade school, fifth period lore, the science in the chemistry set, Bill Nye sense. The big ideas that spark our most basic human curiosity as kids. It’s refreshing to see that kind of science holding hands with art in such an accessible way. And it’s clear that some of the artists/scientists behind the projects themselves feel the same way. “If I can do this by making a movie and I can get a thousand kids to join science rather than going to law school, I would be super happy,” Andreas Heinrich, principle investigator at IBM Research, said in a documentary about the making of the film.

There’s nothing particularly technologically groundbreaking about Hadfield’s “Space Oddity” video. We’ve seen images and video from space cabins before. But artistically, Hadfield – who is no stranger to sending dispatches from space – achieves a perfectness of tone that Bowie himself could not have accomplished. It’s an incredible feat of content and context. That, mixed with the access he gives us as he wanders about the station, and mixed even further with the distribution access of releasing it on YouTube, makes it a piece of art for the Web generation. “This is why god invented the internet,” David Carr writes on his Facebook page.

But as unique as these videos are, they still trade in classic, universal storytelling. What better way to convey the loneliness of a Bowie song – and the expansiveness of space – than with all of humanity hovering in your rear window? It's not likely that “The Boy and His Atom” is the father of a new genre of atomic filmmaking. Though, who knows? Art movements are enigmatic. It could be said that the film was begat by Georges Seurat's pointillism. Niels West, associate creative director for the atom movie, said he wanted the narrative to feel like “The Red Balloon,” the academy award winning short film from 1956.

You see, art imitates art.