University of California, Berkeley: Black hole at center of swirling new women-in-science mural

Astrophysicist Chung-Pei Ma at the University of California, Berkeley, has studied black holes for decades and has dreamed of cruising by one in a spaceship to check out how black they really are.

Though she has never gotten that close to a black hole, she turned out in San Carlos, California, last week to paint a picture of one as part of a mural supervised by multimedia artist Amanda Phingbodhikpakkiya, who is painting walls around the country to honor women scientists of color.

Phingbodhipakkiya’s colorful mural, which she calls “Horizon Light,” was inspired by Ma’s research, which focuses on supermassive black holes that Ma has shown sit — often hidden from view — in the cores of most galaxies. Only the orbital motions of light-emitting objects such as clouds of hot gas betray the black holes’ existence.

As Phingbodhipakkiya describes the 88-foot-long mural, it “finds parallels between the sparse luminous matter astrophysicists use to detect black holes with the work that women do in revealing hidden truths about the world.”

Ma first heard about the Findings Project when Phingbodhipakkiya (PING-bodee-bak-ee-ah) called her out of the blue in early May to ask about her research. Through Zoom, Ma showed her simulations of star and gas motions around supermassive black holes, which allow Ma to weigh them. She eventually worked with the artist to depict these strange objects without making them scary.

Phingbodhipakkiya and Ma in front of the mural

Neuroscientist and artist Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya discusses the mural she designed and painted with astrophysicist Chung-Pei Ma, whose work on supermassive black holes inspired the art piece. (Photo courtesy of Ethan Michon)

“I did not want the black hole to be portrayed as intimidating, I didn’t want this to be like Darth Vader’s Death Star,” she said. “I think more support for similar kinds of outreach activities for science, especially for the physical sciences, which tend to be intimidating to people, will be really helpful.”

In the mural, three women of color — one in a hijab — hold hands in kind of a whirling dance around the black hole, as if they too are in orbit around the center of the galaxy.

“I think this mural idea is great, and the painting part was so much fun. Though I did not realize how big it was,” Ma said. “It is great to have the opportunity for scientists to work with an artist who is so enthusiastic, so eager to represent us.”

Size is a major reason Phingbodhipakkiya chose murals as her medium when she was approached by the Heising-Simons Foundation to collaborate on art that would highlight women in STEM, and in particular, women of color in STEM.

“The power of murals is that they are impossible to ignore. They are too big and too bright and too dynamic,” Phingbodhipakkiya told Science magazine in a recent interview. “I wanted to put science squarely in society in a way that invites people into this incredible research. I love public art. It doesn’t sit behind gallery walls. It’s out there in the wild for anyone to enjoy. That’s really the approach we need to take with science and science literacy and science education and communication. Because so much of the time we’re in an echo chamber.”

Ma painting the black hole as Phingbodhipakkiya looks on

Phingbodhipakkiya looked on as Ma painted an equation for the radius of a black hole and the name of a galaxy, M87, that has a supermassive black hole at its center. The scientific graffiti were eventually painted over in black, a hidden message for the ages. (Photo courtesy of Ethan Michon)

Colorful designs are her hallmark. Last year she made headlines when she erected art panels throughout New York City in the wake of increased violence against people of Asian descent. A neuroscientist by training who turned to art, Phingbodhipakkiya is of Thai and Indonesian descent and focuses on celebrating women and minorities in science: unsung heroes, as she likes to say. She also seeks to involve the community in painting the murals; she mobilized community members in Silicon Valley on June 23 through the San Carlos Community Foundation.

“My art has always been about making the invisible visible,” she told the New York Times last year. “I’ve explored everything from microscopic universes to outer space and things that just can’t be seen with the naked eye. And I think struggles of communities of color are often invisible.”

Phingbodhipakkiya’s first mural in the Findings series, “A Cluster of Enigmas,” was completed last fall in Brooklyn, New York. It drew from the research of Jackie Faherty, an astronomer at the American Museum of Natural History who studies brown dwarfs, which are like huge gas planets that lack enough mass to become stars. The mural pairs brown dwarfs with the “luminous, diverse women of New York City,” according to the project’s website.

Her second, completed in May in Washington, DC, was inspired by the work of Duke University particle physicist Ayana Arce, who is black. More than 75 feet across, “We Contain Multitudes” depicts quarks, the fundamental building blocks of atoms, as women, with one rebounding from a collision to be caught by another.

Phingbodhipakkiya plans to paint her fourth mural next month in Oakland. “Song of Ice and Fjord” will portray the global impact of climate change, showing how rising sea level from melting ice impacts Pacific Islanders.

people painting the mural under the face of a woman in a hijab

The mural, Horizon Light, celebrates women of color in STEM. It was completed on June 29 and is on permanent display in San Carlos. (Photo by Ethan Michon)

After each mural is completed, the artist affixes a plaque to make the connection between the art and science clear, and includes a QR code that takes people to the internet for more information. Ma is pleased that the mural is located in a well-trafficked area next to the parking lot of a grocery store and that it will last a long time — time to inspire children to study science.

“We are hoping this will be up there for many years and that it will remind people of the mysteries of the universe,” she said. “I am hoping some kid one day will ask, ‘Hey what’s the black thing in the middle?’, maybe they can read the plaque, and this message will be passed from generation and from kid to kid, and they can just learn a bit of something new.”

The mural, which Phingbodhipakkiya completed on June 29, is at 852 Laurel St. in San Carlos.

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