Standing in his studio at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Dan Goods places a small cube of gel in a visitor's hand. He looks the visitor in the eye.
Then he gets out the blowtorch.
“Trust me,” he says with a grin.
The flame hits the translucent cube, but there's no heat coming through the cube's bottom. When the flame is extinguished and you pass your hand over the top, it's barely warm.
As an artist who works with space engineers, Goods gets to gobble up scientific data and create digestible tidbits — and make art come alive. That means playing with substances like this aerogel, a baffling material made of 99.8 percent air, which is used as insulation from heat in spacesuits and in the Mars rovers. It's also the stuff used to collect dust from a comet being studied. Goods has used the substance to create smoke-like light displays in two exhibitions, one at JPL and another at the Technorama Museum in Switzerland.
He is used to generating some awe. With his quick movements and child-like sense of “wow, that's cool,” Goods isn't exactly a typical lab employee. For nearly a decade, he has been JPL's only “visual strategist” — and, in fact, the only visual artist working as a regular employee at any NASA center. He has crafted installations about finding planets around other stars, including one where he drilled a hole into a grain of sand, and another, at Pasadena's Museum of California Art, showing what it might be like to explore the surface of Jupiter.
One of Goods' roles is to help scientists and engineers harness their idea-generating energy — that's why he has set up brainstorming communal spaces for them, including Left Field, which looks like a preschool playroom crossed with a robotics lab. The furniture is modular, and shelves are packed with play enhancers like Legos and pipe cleaners. The process of taking things from abstraction to a concrete idea works in both art and science, he explains.
Goods also launches independent art projects outside the lab. He recently was preparing to install a huge, data-driven sculpture at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, as well as a dynamic “digital mirror” for a BMW store in Paris.
His work often returns to the themes of science and challenging materials. Inspiration is everywhere. While Styrofoam computer packing may be a nuisance, for Goods it might also be an opportunity to build robots. He hopes that engineers who see such creations will be inspired to think outside the box.
“I can give them a different perspective or help them communicate what they're doing,” he reflects. “Sometimes, I can see the bigger picture, and I can help remind the scientists of why they're doing it.”
Asking questions and creating wonder at a place like JPL is just part of the artist's job.