James O’Donoghue and his animated Universe

Is it possible to make good scientific communication in a simple and intriguing way? The answer is yes, and Dr James O’Donoghue, winner of this year’s Europlanet Prize for Public Engagement, is proof of that.

James, ground-based infrared astronomer of Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus at JAXA, Japan, has a simple goal in mind: to paint an accurate picture of the Solar System in people’s minds, at the same time highlighting its most relevant features in an intuitive way. Its trademark are short and content-rich animations, now with more than 200 million views on his social networks and used by teachers, in outreach events, for press releases and space missions descriptions.

“I’m lucky because the Universe is a cool topic,” he says. We, on the other hand, think that his idea of making science simply using images and animations is incredible, and so we decided to find out more.

Federica Duras and Livia Giacomini interviewed James about his outreach activity, how it started and what it means for him.

James, what is your scientific area and background? Which is your favourite planet and mission, i.e. the one you never get tired of talking about?
My area of expertise is in observing the uppermost parts of the atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn. After Earth, I’d have to say my favourite planet lately is either one of the Ice Giants Uranus or Neptune! It used to be Saturn, but I changed my mind recently as these freezing cold giants have so many unknowns. That’s mostly because they’ve only ever had 1 fly-by of a spacecraft ever, in the 1980s, so you could say that I’m getting somewhat obsessed by their mysteriousness! The Cassini spacecraft is my favourite mission, it was a real tank of a spacecraft that orbited Saturn for 13 years and made countless discoveries.

Is it easy to combine your scientific and your communicator activity? What does making and sharing scientific animations represent for you?
I would say that my communication is mainly through the medium of animations or images, I think it’s the fastest way to get the information across and the most fun! I enjoy making animations, I feel that it’s finally a way for me to have a creative outlet, especially as I was never good at more traditional forms of art. Making these animations allows me to blend science with design and share my personal view of space with people directly. In other words, I often have some picture about how some space phenomenon works in my head, and while I could explain that to someone with words, I much prefer to show them that picture. When some of my first videos went viral, it was a bit of a psychological shock to my system as an introvert, actually, as it felt like millions of people were getting a direct line into my thoughts that I had displayed in the animation! After getting over that, however, I have since started to really enjoy that connection with people and made almost 100 new videos since then. My motivations began and continue with the feedback received from the public and educators out there who have continued to be fascinated and surprised by how the universe works, without them I might have stopped or slowed down early on.

What is your best animation, the one you are never tired of looking at and are very proud of having made?
My favourite animation is the light speed one, as it is something I have wanted to get across for a long time. Since I was a teenager I realised the vast distances in space take a long time to cross, even at light speed, and honestly it fills me with horror to think about how distant we are from even the nearest planets. It would take at least several thousand years to get to the nearest star with our fastest spacecraft, and that’s just over 4 light years away! The entire galaxy is 100,000 light years across and the nearest large galaxy is 2.5 million light years away. These distances are unthinkably vast even at light speed, and it’s been my pleasure to share this nightmare with tens of millions of people.

James in a Japanese documentary. Credits: James O’Donoghue

Which scientific fact or idea you would like to explain and never managed to explain with an animation (yet)?
I would like to explain general and special relativity, but I need time to investigate how best to teach it visually.

You once were in NASA and now are at Jaxa, in Japan. How would you describe the life of a space scientist to a young student deciding for his/her future?
The main thing I would say is that space science will keep you busy by growing dozens of different skills simultaneously. It’s not just about observing with a telescope or receiving data from a distant spacecraft, the job entails a large amount of computer programming and writing. You will not get bored at all and will never run out of things to do. You can certainly find the things you are best at and become the world’s expert in it quite quickly, since there are usually very few people working in each area. There are only 10,000s of astronomers and space scientists out there and we have an entire universe to cover. To speak frankly and honestly, it is a tough job in terms of job security because most of the time you will be operating on an approximately 3 year contract until getting a permanent job. 

Coming back to you, what are your plans and dreams for your future working life? 
My dream job is certainly one which combines research and outreach with a bit of teaching. Right now my outreach efforts are mostly done in my free time, and as my free time is getting smaller every year, I would like to do it as part of my job in a more serious way.

And given the results, we cross our fingers!
Thanks James.