Story by Alan D. McNarie
About 13.73 billion years out on the space-time continuum rides a modest whirlpool of a few hundred billion stars circling a super-massive black hole: the Milky Way, one of perhaps five hundred billion galaxies in our known universe. Somewhere in the Orion arm of that galaxy is a medium-large star, and whirling around it is a small, rocky planet with liquid water and an atmosphere. In the middle of that planet’s largest ocean lies an island where, on the lanai of a home built on the slope of a volcano in South Kona, Jon Lomberg takes a sip of lemonade and thinks about his place in it all.
“What I try to do,” says the artist, “is to give people a way to connect with the cosmos—whether it’s an animation sequence or a galaxy garden or stargazing at Kona Village or on cruise ships—so that people don’t feel insignificant or scared by it.”
Lomberg’s in his early 60s but looks a decade younger; with his tousled black hair, prominent nose and bushy eyebrows, he bears more than a little resemblance to his late friend and collaborator, astronomer Carl Sagan. Lomberg has spent much of his adult life creating images that not only connect people to the cosmos, but also science to art and scientists to ordinary people. He earned an Emmy for his work as lead artist for PBS’ groundbreaking Cosmos series, and he illustrated the series’ companion volume, which became the best-selling science book of all time. Scientists at NASA and Hawai‘i’s observatories regularly call on him to convert their data into images that lay people can understand.
Lomberg’s also a specialist at creating visual language to communicate with people of the distant future—and maybe even extraterrestrials. He’s worked on a project to develop signs warning humans away from nuclear waste repositories that will remain radioactive for longer than 10,000 years. He designed a gold record cover with pictographs meant to instruct prospective ET’s on how to play the gold-plated copper disc inside, a recording with information about our humble planet: spoken greetings in fifty-five languages, sounds of nature, human music and a stellar map of Earth’s location. The record is now aboard the Voyager I space probe, launched in 1977 on a trajectory that will eventually take it out of the solar system. It’s currently the farthest man-made object from Earth.
“That message is now far beyond Pluto,” he muses. “The lifetime of that drawing is how long it will take for the occasional whisper of interstellar dust to erode it. How many artists get to make something that lasts a thousand million years?”