The Book of Moon

This book is my PhD thesis, which focuses on the breakdown of boulders on the lunar surface, and the evolution of its landscape over time. Topography data from the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) aboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft is carved into the book’s surface, juxtaposing the science behind this process with the beauty of the landscape it helps to produce. The pages of the thesis also reveal the scientific process, juxtaposing the creation of knowledge with the creation of art.

This piece won the People’s Choice Award at the 2015 Art of Planetary Science exhibition. Read on below for a description of how the piece was made and its concept.


These beautiful photographs (below) were taken by a friend Brian Clements from transverse RANGES, an online publication that expresses the rich humanity of science and scientists through interviews about their lives and careers. The stark lighting and harsh contrast really capture the aesthetic of lunar surface, of space. That contrast is what makes interpreting remote sensing images of the planetary surfaces difficult to interpret. It both highlights and hides so much.



I finally got a chance to write up a little more about this piece when doing an interview over at ROCKETGUT!, a great blog about space and culture.

The Book of Moon was the first paper planet I ever made. I started an art show in grad school called The Art of Planetary Science, where we featured artwork inspired by science and the solar system. We also encouraged scientists to create artwork out of their research data in an effort to show a different side of science to public. This piece was a little bit of both. It’s a tradition in my grad department (and many others) to burn a copy of your PhD thesis after you defend— a cathartic act, I guess. But instead of burning it, I decided I wanted to make it into art. My thesis focused on how rocks break down on the Moon, so from the pages I carved a complex, cratered lunar landscape. Obviously I’m biased, but I think it is really a beautiful thing. It juxtaposes the science behind the breakdown process with the beauty of the landscape it helps to produce. You can also see the text and figures on the pages peek through the topography. So the pages of the thesis also reveal the scientific process, juxtaposing the creation of knowledge with the creation of art.

This was really a labor of love, and a cathartic act I performed to mentally process finishing my degree. It was really challenging because the topography is complex, and as the first piece I ever made I had a lot to learn about the methodology still. Compared to more recent works, it is technically imperfect in so many ways— but it is my favorite thing I have ever made. In a way, the process of creating The Book of Moon also mirrors graduate school itself. It is a monumental effort to learn and practice the skills needed to do research. At the end of it all, you are (and should be) proud of the contribution you have made to science. But, as you move forward and grow in your career, your research abilities, finesse, and techniques also grow. Eventually you look back and see that the work that took painstaking years in grad school to accomplish would now be much easier, take less time, be more precise. So this is now what I see in The Book of Moon compared to new pieces I create. I guess I see my learning process as an artist. I unknowingly turned my PhD thesis into my art thesis as well.

These paper landscapes really take a lot of work to create, and there are several steps and tools involved. First, I choose a landscape of interest. I’ve made pieces from images before, but I prefer to work with topography data. For example, this piece uses data from the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) on board the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). All spacecraft data is freely accessible to the public, though learning to process it is non-trivial. One of these days I’ll write up a blog post about this, but for now I’ll just say that I process the data using Matlab. I pick out a section of the landscape I want to use, slice it up into layers, and outline the edge of each layer so that if you stacked the contours on top of each other they would look like the lines on a topography map. (My cutting mats often look like this once I’m finished!)

These outlines are exported as individual vector files for each layer. Usually my pieces have 30-50 layers, though pieces based on images rather than topography have closer to 10. (The Book of Moon had 150, and I’ll tell you I’m never going to make one that thick again! It took me easily over 100 hours.) Then, I use a Silhouette Cameo to cut out each page. I call it my craft robot— it can cut or draw in 2D, so I load one of the topography contours into the software and a piece of paper into the machine and it cuts it out. When I finish cutting all the layers, I carefully stack them into a frame and try not to tear anything as I line up all the pages. I had originally wanted to have the piece bound into an actual book, but it quickly became apparent it was too fragile. So instead I had a wooden box made by RickisWoodWorks on Etsy. The pages are loose in the box which makes handling it risky, so I now make all pieces to go in deep frames.

The cutting of the pages takes a really long time. You would think that the robot does all the work, but the topography is really complex and the cuts aren’t always perfect. When I remove them from the machine they can be extremely delicate to handle. It can take 20 minutes for the robot to cut a single sheet, and another 20 minutes for me to remove the page from the cutting mat and flatten it. So depending on how many pages a piece has, it usually takes me on the order of 10s of hours to create. One of the hardest parts about the process of creating a new piece is picking out the paper to use. Some pieces use colored paper to represent something physical or scientific. For example, in Chasma Boreale, the layered colors reflect the layering observed in the northern polar cap of Mars. For others, like Ceres and Margaret’s Moon I choose something else to represent on the pages. Sometimes I end of making a few versions before I’m happy with the final product, so these works are really long term projects. This is another way for me to explore other worlds, and the journey is worth the time.