The Doodle Gig

Dennis Hwang. Credit:Korean Herald/Google

Is the nascent field of astrobiology getting new inspiration from the mainstream?

Evidence put forth this summer might suggest the question is answerable anecdotally. June 2004 brought astrobiology into focus when ‘discovering life elsewhere’ could be formulated with sufficient precision that the definition of astrobiology itself has now entered the most time-honored language compendium, the Oxford English Dictionary.

Also during the month of June, a somewhat obscure astronomical event–the Venus transit of the Sun–became the most searched for term on the world’s most popular search engine, Google. To elevate the Venus transit to the masses, a truly enthusiastic observer had to wade through all the other things going on in June, turn off the four biggest sports events of the year, and proactively tune into a few hours of advanced astronomy, when the Sun got a momentarily dimmer face.

In a competitive media world where niche demographics seem to siphon interests into specialized hobbies and focused technical topics, one thus wonders how the search for life has changed since it was first put forward as a scientific discipline called astrobiology.

One picture essay that illustrates the question can be formulated from stringing together one of the more recognizable commentaries from the internet: the Google logo. When the first Mars rover landed safely, the mammoth traffic jams caused on the internet came to be called ‘the Mars effect’ to symbolize what NASA later revealed as web hits that surpassed the number of humans on the planet. And the Google logo, particularly its chief logo designer Dennis Hwang, gave life to the moment in a special commemorative version of the familiar corporate signpost.

Picture grams to SETI research is nothing new. In fact, a kind of digital cave painting has been part of signals sent into deep space as indicators of human perception and representation
Credit: SETI Institute/ Arecibo

It was a new kind of editorial, but in pictures. Like the phrase ‘web logs’ has been shortened to blog, thus matching how headlines and abbreviated stories become just link collections, then by analogy the web logo on google must be akin to some invented web-only phrase like the world’s first ‘blogo’: a concise picture essay on the state of the web today. It is an unconventional move since traditional wisdom dictates that the one thing a company cannot mess with is to doodle over the branded logo.

So what does this snapshot of the state of the internet have to say about astrobiology? Perhaps something simple but witty, just like the logos?

Dennis Hwang works as the arbitrator virtually as a one-man shop: "I’m the guy who draws the Google doodles." Hwang did not set out to do logos (or its web commentary as ‘blogos’), but instead " was a Stanford undergrad majoring in art and computer science, and, although I hadn’t been hired to do anything remotely related to logo design, I eventually stumbled into my first doodle gig."

"And I’ve done all the doodles ever since", wrote Hwang who has given picture-grams on astrobiology an entirely new kind of audience. After the Google name came to be synonymous with minimalistic web pages, their introduction of any variation on such a hallmark as the corporate logo took on more prominence in grading ‘the state of the web’. It seemed to say alot with less and less.

So what does a quick tour of Google’s logo history tell about not just the Venus transit as the most looked upon event of June 2004, but also the Mars effect from January 2004? Consider this new form of picture-gram as corporate commentary on what is most intriguing about science, but when that science gets placed into the somewhat alien landscape of the mainstream, many of which may never own a telescope nor challenge a claim of UFO abduction. As Google indicates in its collection of past important events on the internet, "We’ve put them in this online museum for your amusement."

On April 22, 2003–Earth Day–, Google celebrated the occasion with aliens looking on as earthlings considered the environmental fate of our tiny blue marble. A year earlier, the signpost had featured the actual Apollo picture of the earth as seen from space, while in 2001, the two-halves of the earth showed the diverse biomes of desert, mountain and ocean—situated right between the two ‘O’ letters in Google. The association is familiar to those studying life elsewhere, since no single image seems to capture both the isolation and uniqueness of the blue planet than the snapshot against the black curtain of deep space.

"The Sojourner Rover became a character to millions of people, a protagonist in a story. ..The reason we thought of it as a character is that it represented us in a way. It was our consciousness moving that vehicle around on the surface of Mars. So it was a celebration of who and what we are."–Academy Award winning film director James Cameron

The year 2003 was a big year for anniversaries important to both biology and aerospace. On December 17, 2003, the centennial of the Wright brother’s first powered flight was celebrated. On April 25, 2003, the fiftieth anniversary of Watson and Crick’s DNA structure became front page news. On March 14, 2003, the event was Einstein’s birthday.

To launch their April Fool’s Day joke, Google spread the rumor in 2004 that they were preparing to open a lunar office.

Earlier in the year, January 15th lauded the landing of the Mars rovers.

But when one gets large enough to shape the news, rather than just comment passively on it, Google perhaps showed its reach in its most recent elevation of the Venus transit to their front page logo. If June brought astrobiology to the oldest English dictionary, then the Venus transit could surpass all events including European soccer, the US Open golf tournament, the National Basketball Association finals and at Wimbledon, the oldest English tennis tournament. Thus with the introduction of a simple doodle, the world came to know how to find out more about what last happened a century ago, when an inner planet crossed the face of the Sun.

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