The sublime, dark depths of the unknown universe, animated

How do you visualize something that, by definition, can’t be seen?

Ever since we started interviewing physicists for our Condensed Matters audio series, we’ve been fascinated by how scientists, artists and journalists create visual representations of dark matter.

Illustration by Daniela Sherer

Dark matter is an mysterious, ethereal substance that makes up over 25% of the mass-energy of the universe (for comparison, the stuff we can see and interact with only comprises about 5%) but has only been measured obliquely by its effects on the matter around it. It is essentially invisible, and conceptual metaphors seem to be the method of choice for explaining what, exactly, dark matter is. Since our understanding of dark matter is in flux, and our measurements of dark matter are difficult to visualize, we thought that the most novel way to represent it would be to move away from the literal universe and into an animated one.

We worked with the extraordinary and beautifully subtle animator Daniela Sherer to animate Columbia astrophysicist Janna Levin’s short Condensed Matters interview, and we’re excited to share it with you. Janna is also the Director of Sciences at Pioneer Works, which co-produced the piece with us here at Massive. We think you’ll love the way Daniela decided to represent dark matter and tell a visual story alongside Janna’s exploration into the stuff of the cosmos. I asked Daniela, after she finished the piece, how her animation process works with science stories, and I loved her answer.

Nadja: Do you approach telling stories visually in a different way for science-related content as compared to other content?

Daniela: Not really, I think telling science-y stories is very similar to telling other kinds of stories about life. Usually, finding the right metaphor, key image, general look, or a certain plot-line is what you ultimately need for good storytelling — and the same thing goes for science-stories. Making any kind of film is basically presenting, via art, a theory or thought about the world, which potentially makes it a bit more meaningful to live in (or not).

Subscribe to Massive and we’ll let you know when we find new explanations, new possibilities, or new questions to answer.