Artist reaches for the sky

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South Jeffco author offers celestial surprises in latest book

By Emile Hallez

Just as the metro area’s weather took a dramatic turn last weekend, shifting from highs above 80 on Saturday to a snowstorm the following morning, far stranger things were happening on Neptune.


The planet, for example, may have been experiencing a rainstorm — with liquid methane precipitating in beach-ball-size drops.

And nearby, on Neptune’s largest moon, Triton, the entire atmosphere over one hemisphere may have been frozen to the surface during an unimaginably cold winter.

Even on Earth’s moon, temperatures fluctuated by more than 300 degrees Fahrenheit between shade and direct sunlight.

“There’s this strange thing going on, on Neptune. The sky is more clear than it should be,” said South Jeffco author Michael Carroll, an astronomic artist who explores extraterrestrial weather phenomena in his new book “Drifting on Alien Winds.”

“There’s so much methane in the air that it expands quickly and becomes the size of a beach ball and falls out of the air,” he said of a radical new theory about the planet’s lack of cloud cover, a scene vividly depicted in his new book, which was published in February. “There are a lot of people who are skeptical that that’s what’s really going on, but it makes great painting.”

Using acrylic paint and canvas, Carroll, 55, has given shape to space scenes, for which first-person accounts do not exist.

It’s an art form that fuses scientific research with raw creativity — a process exemplified by the artist himself. Working amid a flow of spacey, new age music, Carroll, who occasionally pauses to crunch numbers on his calculator watch, has produced the images in his basement, a room filled with Star Trek DVDs and an assemblage of astronomic paintings by fellow artists.

“Other genres have the luxury of painting from right there. And you have to make some jumps when you’re doing astronomic art. But those jumps need to be constrained by science,” Carroll said. “This is an extension of landscape art. The same natural rules apply throughout the universe. … There are some things that change when there’s no air. That’s difficult for a painter as well as a space traveler.”

But “Drifting on Alien Winds,” like the cache of more than 20 books he has authored, is not merely a graphic depiction of celestial marvels — it’s an in-depth text navigable by the lay population, people who couldn’t tell Saturn from Centaurus.

“It’s written for anybody to understand. It’s not supposed to be a technical book. It’s supposed to be a fun romp through this historical trip into the cosmos that we’re all on,” he said. “I want to be able to communicate to anybody the excitement, awesomeness and natural beauty of the cosmos.”

Carroll, who made his first space painting at age 11, a scene based on the Apollo 8 mission, found that, as his paintings became more technical, he spent nearly as much time researching subjects as the author of a journal article might. Consequently, he penned his first magazine article in the ’80s, for Popular Science.

“Painting uses a slightly different part of your brain than writing does, so it’s nice to have the mix,” said Carroll, who holds an art degree from Colorado State University. “To do a good piece of space art, you have to do the same kind of research.”

“Drifting on Alien Winds” first introduces weather concepts familiar to readers — those of Earth — which serves as a comparison to almost unfathomable phenomena seen around the solar system.

“From Earth weather, we go to the terrestrials — Venus and Mars — which are the most Earth-like in some ways. And from there, we go to the outer planets, where things get really weird,” Carroll said. “Jupiter and Saturn and all the outer planets don’t have any ground to stand on. They’re balls of gas, basically. Deep down inside, the core is more dense than the Earth’s core, but there’s no nice line between the solid and the air. It just gradually gets gooier.”

Carroll — who has also collaborated with his wife, Caroline, a librarian at the Columbine Library, on a series of 12 children’s books — credits his father, Patrick, who worked as an engineer at Martin Marietta for 30 years, in piquing his curiosity about space. In fact, an entire chapter in the new book was inspired by his father’s work on early space-exploration vehicles.

“There’s this neat history of early planetary exploration that had a lot of its roots right here, and it’s my hope that we don’t lose that history,” he said. “I was trying to document some of it in that part of the book, so that people can know all the weird and wacky things that went on back when we were still trying to figure out how to put a grapefruit-size thing into orbit around the Earth.”

Included in the chapter is a mock cartoon his father created of a Venus probe, a project on which he worked, showing a comically exaggerated number of scientific appendages attached to the vehicle.

“It turned out that the final design included more experiments than were on the cartoon,” Carroll said. “They’re actually able to get a lot out of these probes.”

Aside from the novel interest in extraterrestrial weather, Carroll said much can be learned from other planets in helping us understand our own. He cites NASA’s 1978 discovery of chlorofluorocarbons on Venus, which had also been shown to have holes in its ozone layer.

“At that time, 1978, there were a whole bunch of people in industry who were just about to release bug spray and spray paint and shampoos and all kinds of stuff with CFCs — anything with aerosol,” he said. “In a very real way, the study of Venus my have helped us avert an environmental crisis.”

Additionally, comparing the bizarre weather on other planets can help provide Earthlings with a bit of appreciation for our unique atmosphere, a stable layer of protection from extreme temperature shifts.

“Whenever it’s winter on one hemisphere or another (on Triton), the entire atmosphere collapses. … All of the atmosphere freezes to that pole,” said Carroll, who has produced work for NASA, Time, National Geographic and other publications. “We think it gets cold in Milwaukee. We ain’t seen nothing.”

Further, the information gleaned from space exploration provides not only practical scientific knowledge, but also a sense of our minute existence in a mysterious, infinite universe.

“One thing I love just from a practical standpoint about planetary exploration is that it has saved our bacon more than once in terms of understanding Earth’s weather and environment. … It’s not just this abstract quest for knowledge,” he said. “It pulls me out of myself. It gives me some perspective.”



“Drifting on Alien Winds: Exploring the Skies and Weather of Other Worlds”

by Michael Carroll

Hardcover, 238 pages

Published in 2011 by Springer


Contact Emile Hallez Williams at emile@evergreenco.com or 303-933-2233 ext. 22. 

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