bonus track – the awe of art and space | Joseph Mascaro and Ben Haldeman
This bonus track is part of a series of interviews we conducted for episode 23 Draw Everywhere: Space and Quantum Computing Art with Forest Stearns. This time we interview Joseph Mascaro, a space ecologist, writer, and science advisor, as well as Ben Haldeman, the founder and CEO of Lifeship. We spoke about their experiences with art and how it created space for unique problem-solving and permits people to be creative.
The transcript was produced by an AI, mistakes might appear.
[00:00:00] Nir Hindi: Hey podcast listeners. Welcome back. Season two is just around the corner. If you wait a little bit more, you are going to be super excited about it. I know I am. As promised, we want to share with you more of our background interviews. We conducted for episode 24, draw everywhere space in quantum computing out with my dear friend Forest Stearns.
If you have not had the chance to listen to this episode, all the bonus track that goes with it, I will encourage you to check it out. In today’s bonus episode, we speak to Joseph Mascaro space ecologies right there, science adviser. Our second guest is Ben Haldeman, founder, and CEO at Lifeship that basically sends the DNA of people to the moon.
Thanks, Joe, and Ben for taking the time and sharing with me all your wonderful ideas around art, science, and space. And as you already know, we need you, our listeners, we need your [00:01:00] help. So, before we start a small request if you find this podcast valuable and insightful, please, please share it with friends and colleagues.
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Hey Joe, thank you for taking the time to chat with me, Joe, can you introduce yourself briefly?
Joseph Mascaro: Sure. I am happy to. I am a tropical ecologist and a remote sensing scientist, and I am the director of science programs at Planet. Most of my job involves coordinating and scientific engagement in the university sector. So, I work a great deal with, uh, earth observation and an earth imaging scientist, um, the kinds of applications that they have for remote sensing data.
Nir Hindi: Great.
[00:02:00] And you joined Planet when?
Joseph Mascaro: In late 2014 originally? Yeah. So. Uh, the company was around a hundred people at the time. I think we are up at around 500 now. So, it is grown quite a bit since I joined.
Nir Hindi: And you joined the company after Forest, our friend is there, and you come to the company and you see in the main space and you hear that you have another artist standing out in residence program.
Joseph Mascaro: It was inspiring. Yeah. I vividly remember my first tour of the office. Of course, there is a lot of dazzling technology that I learned about, but, uh, Forest was kind of standing in a room with some engineers and, you know, several of his pieces of art were on the walls. And I remember getting a quick check-in on what art on a satellite panel looks like, which is something that had never occurred to me before.
So, the idea of putting art on satellites, which was kind of Forest’s original reason for being a planet and, um, yeah, it was inspiring. And I would say surprising. Um, and that was [00:03:00] a nice,
Nir Hindi: Did you have, or do you have engagement with art, regularly?
Joseph Mascaro: I had not previously, you know, I have come to learn throughout Silicon Valley in the tech industry, that art seems to be playing an increasing role on the corporate side.
I have also certainly encountered a lot of art in the science of earth observation. I mean, so over my shoulder is a Planet image from the high latitudes. Obviously, it looks chilly up there. There is a concept in earth observation called the overview effect, which kind of dates to the earliest days of earth imaging and the early astronaut program.
And so, you know, just being able to take photographs from space is, uh, certainly a form of art it is photography in its most basic form. So, you know, I had to encounter those kinds of artistic connections before it was different to see the role that art and engagement around the art could play inside of a private company.
I must [00:04:00] confess it was the first time I had worked in a private company too. So, a lot of things were new for me.
Nir Hindi: So, what is the value that you see having this art engagement? How do you think this art engagement influenced?
Joseph Mascaro: I will tell you that, first, it is one of the most common things I hear outside of planet is how much interest.
Uh, there has been in planet doing art on satellites and the artists in residence program that Forest had been running. I also I will tell you a story about one event. So, we hosted a primary school, basically grade school students. So, around the ages of eight or nine for a science fair some years ago, and we did a bunch of different sessions with them.
Mostly it was engineers and aerospace folks running engineers, teaching them how to use rockets. Or how to make a rocket basically out of a Coke bottle, um, and then quite safe it is it does not involve anything it is uh, anyway, but, um, also they basically [00:05:00] sat and drew art, which was not revealed to them until kind of halfway through that basically a couple of those pieces were selected, and laser etched on spacecraft and went to space and I think. Watching these younger students engage with that idea that they are own art would be orbiting the earth potentially was really inspiring and quite delightful. And it was a fun event for the company to be involved in.
I think because so many people, so many other employees inside the company were involved in it absolutely can bring people together. I have been kind of in my own time doing some research about how people engage with problem-solving, especially problem solving about the earth, like climate change. And I have learned a little bit about how emotions like to be amazed by something is kind of interconnected with creativity and problem solving and curiosity.
And to divorce this from art for a moment because I think it makes it easier to [00:06:00] understand, you know, I saw the solar eclipse, the total eclipse in the United States a year and a half ago, whenever that was, I mean, it was the first time I had seen a total eclipse. And of course, this is a natural event. I would say it feels very artistic because it is so unusual and beautiful, but it puts your brain in a state of shock.
And when I experienced a great piece of art or learn from an artist, I am feeling something like the same emotion is sort of. Surprise delight. It is hard to describe, to be honest, when your brain goes into artistic exploration, but I would say that this seems to be a very healthy emotion when it comes to problem-solving.
I mean, if you are an engineer or a designer scientist, you are often trying to solve problems when as part of your day-to-day reality. And kind of tricking your brain into a healthy, creative problem-solving state is a very good practical thing to do. And I certainly I have experienced that when it comes to arts related to [00:07:00] the earth or, uh, the kind of creativity that a piece of art can inspire.
Nir Hindi: You mentioned this awe and kind of a shock. I mean, so those are probably some of the things that you experienced. Did you experience more emotions or maybe even perceiving your work or what you do differently from this interaction having Forest and the other artists that joined this artist in residence?
Joseph Mascaro: It is, I probably met five or six artists and residents under the program that Forest was running and there was a certain rhythm to kind of breaking up my day-to-day routine and spending some time doing something else it is always refreshing to change your headspace but to do it in a creative way, where you get into a little bit of mental flow was healthy.
I do a lot of writing. I would say the closest in my own life that I get to creating art is, is writing. And I have observed in [00:08:00] myself that is easier to write when I am sort of immersed, in an artistic headspace. I think for so many reasons that we do not have time to talk about, but, you know, I am sure you have lived through the transformation that the internet has brought in in the way we live our lives.
And now we are all kind of, you know, we are obviously all living through a rather unique human experience with this global pandemic, but certainly, the intersection of technology and work is radically different for all of us than it was say 20 years ago or even 10 years ago. And one of the symptoms of that I think is we are engaged in a lot of micro distraction, you know, texting Slack messages, whatever email, you know, your inbox, your relationship with your inbox.
And this can induce a certain level of a drain on your creativity and your inspiration. Sometimes it is very healthy [00:09:00] and helpful to pause and let some oxygen go into your brain and one of the easiest ways to do that is to do a creative or artistic activity. And so, having some people around that kind of incentivize you to do that, you know, they are sort of there to, to pull you into that space.
Proactively is really a great thing.
Nir Hindi: Joe, I want to ask you a question. If I am a business manager, listening to you now. Why would you recommend me to start an artist a residence program in my own company?
Joseph Mascaro: I suppose that the most practical reason and let me be clear. I, I was saying I am doing some research. I am trying to figure this out.
And I do not know that I have fully explored it yet, but clearly the psychology. And this sort of emotional health of employees in a company is important. Right? And if the company is doing innovation and where [00:10:00] there is the generation of new stuff, you know, that has not existed before new technologies, new approaches.
I think there’s empirical evidence that suggests that a certain amount of creative space with purpose is helpful to this process, by which I mean it is empirically materially helpful. I would struggle to. I would need to do, I think, a bit more homework to validate that, but at least what I have read lately.
Yeah. Especially about neuroscience, biology. This, we talked about the emotions of all the emotions of curiosity. Curiosity is one, I have read a fair bit about it. Did not think of curiosity, as a fundamental drive. It is like our desire for food.
And so, if you, you know, imagine that your employees have a certain amount of time and oxygen that they spend in a, in a curious problem-solving kind of creative headspace that for sure you would view that as a resource, [00:11:00] right. As an empirical resource that affects your business. Um, so yeah, I think it is worthwhile. And then I think hard to separate it, but of course, then there is another merit reason, which is just, you know, what kind of society do we want to build?
I think you would have a hard time finding people that think that art is not valuable. I think it is a sort of intrinsic value in terms of how we spend our time and what we do with our civilization. This is clearly something very, very valuable to us. I also think there is a kind of long game, so I was just reading, and I have not gotten all the details yet, but I was just reading about the discovery of some, roughly 12,000-year-old paintings in the Amazon, in Columbia.
Nir Hindi: Yeah. Amazing. I read it also.
Joseph Mascaro: Right, totally amazing.
Nir Hindi: The all-time Sistine Chapel. They say it will take like a few generations to map all of it.
Joseph Mascaro: Yeah. It could take lifetimes and I have been also doing a fair bit of reading about early human culture, and now let us just make a thought problem.
And I know it sounds [00:12:00] kind of silly, but for sure I have had the experience of doodling or drawing on the beach or. Maybe when I was a kid drawing on a tree or something like that. And having somebody implied that I was wasting my time. And, uh, I would not be surprised if the emotion of creating art for these people in Columbia that was making it, you know, it just felt like a normal part of their day.
And maybe they were just playing, to be honest. I mean, we do not know, but now we look at this ancient antiquity that teaches us about our early culture as a species. And it is priceless. And it is very easy for me to analogize. Uh, you know, I know a little bit about some of the projects that Forest is working on right now.
And when I think about the projects he is working on now, I think to myself, wow. You know, in a few centuries, that kind of thing could be exquisitely valuable to our society, you know, and just as an example, but I mean, time changes our perception of the value of art, I would [00:13:00] say. So. All right. That is worth considering too.
If you play the long game.
Nir Hindi: Joe, I want to thank you very much for your time and insights.
Joseph Mascaro: I am so grateful that you had me, and I look forward to future conversations.
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Nir Hindi: Hey Ben, thank you for taking the time. Can you introduce yourself maybe in one sentence?
Ben Haldeman: I am Ben Haldeman, and I am founder of Lifeship. And we are sending people’s DNA to the moon.
Nir Hindi: Oh wow.
[00:14:00] Ben Haldeman: Humanity and a backup of life. Yeah. So, I really see it as something of, it has been like a path of like bringing creativity into entrepreneurship and like creating something new from just like a dream.
Yeah. We created, a low-cost kit for people to just order a DNA kit and add their DNA. And then we are on a moon, a rocket to the moon next August.
Nir Hindi: Oh, yeah? Wow.
Ben Haldeman: So, it has really been like a, okay. Create something from nothing and like a blank canvas of what do we send to people that will inspire them and make them look up at the moon, the rest of their life, and feel connected to it and feel connected.
Like their blueprint is safe for the future. And they are part of humanity. In the cosmos, it has really been this as an artistic journey into creating.
Nir Hindi: How did you get to decide to send DNA to the moon?
Ben Haldeman: Yeah, I. Like I had worked on a lot of space stuff with Forest. And before that, and I was [00:15:00] both inspired by working on the satellites and then realizing like, Oh, my blood, sweat, and tears went into this.
And like a piece of me is up in space. How do, how do I bring that connection to more people? Uh, so that was one. And then like the actual real idea came. I was down in the rain forest in Guatemala. I had done plant medicines and was at a yoga and meditation retreat and went for this long walk in the rainforest by myself and felt like the forest was teaching me.
Like the little critters were teaching me that life has expanded to fill every niche on this planet. And the earth has evolved humans to both take care of all our species and protect them, and then also help life move outwards. And so, on that journey, like it came and start with little seeds of all our DNA and as both a.
The way to protect earth’s biodiversity for the future, like a time capsule. And then also a step towards sending life outwards and helping life expand into the universe.
[00:16:00] Nir Hindi: Super interesting. And how long you have been working on that?
Ben Haldeman: Like I got the vision right. Two years ago and took a journey to get our product and started selling them.
And now we are. We are like ramping quickly, like, and yeah, we are doing orders of thousands of them and starting to assemble them and sort of really trying to get many people to do it.
Nir Hindi: And then how it is going to look, you are going to, how you are going to put it on the moon.
Ben Haldeman: All the DNA goes in this like a golden record that also has a knowledge archive.
So, it has like all the Wikipedia on it. It has. A collection of art. It has like 50,000 books from around the world, all embedded in the knowledge archive. And the DNA goes in layers inside of it. And then like the actual person’s DNA. And then that goes, There’s a Moon Lander. And that goes on top of a rocket and the rocket shoots up and orbits earth a couple of times, and then slings to the moon and then the [00:17:00] Lander lands on the moon and stays there.
So, this is just like connected to the Lander and it is shared like we are a tiny fraction of the Lander. There is a lot of other stuff on it. So, so
Nir Hindi: I want to ask you about it. Your relationship with the art or how you got exposed to art before getting to know Forest in Planet.
Ben Haldeman: Remember doing little like art workshops and camps growing up and whether it was paper-mace things or animals or like painting, but I think a bit, I lost a bit of touch with that and I did not necessarily associate what I was working on with, with art.
And I, I started doing, I studied mechanical engineering, so I did a lot of 3d design and mechanical design and really felt like me, I took a lot of pleasure in making the designs. I worked on look gorgeous and really put a lot, a lot into that, but did not totally associate that with art. And then, and I joined this company planet labs [00:18:00] and we were designing satellites and I just really.
Felt like, okay. The more elegant something looked the more like the better overall solutions that got to. So, I think I came at it from like a pragmatic. Okay. If it is, if it is elegant and simple, then it like, it has like a, a purpose.
Nir Hindi: And when you joined planet Forest was it already there?
Ben Haldeman: Forest joined shortly after me.
Nir Hindi: So, then you have, pho is joining as an artist. What you have in mind when you hear an artist joining a satellite company?
Ben Haldeman: It was cool! I made, I made friends with Forest early on and he started doing big canvases and then like, Putting the designs on the side of the satellites. And, and I think at first, like, I, I do not know.
Maybe I thought as is like a little decoration on the side and mostly like something cool around our lab, but then like, I. I started to see how he was getting in there and like awakening creative aspects of like the team and, [00:19:00] uh, getting us to see it more as like a core part of what we were doing. And for me, it just started to give me more yeah.
More permission to just like, keep like, putting more attention into, okay. How do we make this all more like a canvas and bring more beauty into all we are doing and make it? Simple and elegant and just like, think through like, what does it naturally want to be and evolve towards?
Nir Hindi: You already mentioned a few things.
First, like kind of Forest show you that art is more than the decoration, then maybe awakening, as you mentioned, or giving you creative permission in your own work. What are the influences that you saw that the existence of an artist or the presence of an artist inside the company brings to other team members?
Ben Haldeman: Yeah, I, I think there’s a
lot with like, with the art of just like. Getting your pencil out and just like starting and like not feeling embarrassed with your first try. And so just like this, this [00:20:00] ability to just like make mistakes and make things that are ugly and, and then like learn and iterate on them.
And so, I think that goes into the permission of just like, Okay. We are all creative and we are all creators. And, and it is not just about like the pencil or the paintbrush on the canvas. It is about permission to like to come up with ideas or create companies or like dream bigger. And so, I think it like, and art is such a, it is such a bridge between different disciplines, like between like science and engineering and.
You know, business and products and as customers, it really is this like glue that connects it all. So, I really felt like it, like built these, like these bridges between aspects of the team and the company and creative part within each of us.
Nir Hindi: If I am listening to you now as a business manager, and I need to ask myself, Oh, maybe I should start my own artist [00:21:00] in residence.
Why would you recommend having artists in business companies? Oh, not only in business companies but organizations that often do not have any relations with art.
Ben Haldeman: It is like the soul of the, of the company. It, like, brings pride to people’s work. It brings this like a greater connection for whatever.
One is working on and, and helps weave it together into something that, that people have greater pride in and feel like they are collaborating and working on stuff together. So, it really builds this connection across the organization and inspires people, and gets them to think bigger. And it gets people to.
It like exercises, the parts of the brain that you want in the business. Like as far as being able to think creatively and come up with ideas and not think like, Oh, this is stupid, or I am not good at that. Like, like the permission that makes companies successful. Yeah.
Nir Hindi: Yeah, totally. So, I hope that they, soon you will start your [00:22:00] own artist-in-residence you already have a big vision taking DNA to the moon.
Which is super exciting.
Ben Haldeman: Definitely, art is a key part of what we are doing. It was really, it is like they experience artists really think through like the customer experience and, and, uh, the key part of, of making something memorable and meaningful and making it feel authentic and like deeper. And there is a lot that brings.
Nir Hindi: great.
Ben, thank you for taking the time to chat with us about the influence of art.
Ben Haldeman: You’re welcome. I was glad to connect. Glad to speak with you.
Nir Hindi: Thanks.