Photo by Christian B Meza.
Dos Equis might claim to have The Most Interesting Man in the World, but Geoff Notkin could easily compete for the title. His Instagram bio describes him as a “TV host, producer, Emmy Award winner, author, columnist, adventurer, meteorite specialist, TEDx speaker, Ed Fringe performer, and Asteroid 132904.” Yes, he has an asteroid as a namesake. But even that impressive list does not begin to encompass Notkin’s countless talents, interests and accomplishments.
In an extended interview with Inspiring Figures, Notkin was generously insightful, charmingly witty, and more than a little self-deprecating. Who else could mention the Ramones, potato salad, and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the same sentence and have it make perfect sense?
Due to its length, the interview will be presented in parts, culminating with a fascinating look at his childhood idols (you will be surprised), who continues to inspire him today, and breaking news on his latest endeavor, which may be his most ambitious ever.
In the fourth and final part of our interview, Geoff explains why science and the arts belong together and how his equal passion for both realms are showcased in his latest (and boldest!) ventures.
Click here to read Part Three
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Earlier in the interview, you talked a lot about your love of music and how much music has influenced your life. You were a professional musician yourself and have a strong background in the arts, including graduating from the famed School of Visual Arts in New York. But, today, you are known more for your work in space and science. How do you reconcile those somewhat disparate areas of interest and expertise?
For me, they have never been disparate. I have always been fascinated by science and I have always been completely overwhelmed with delight for the arts. When I was a little boy, my time was split between them. I would be out in the woods digging for fossils, or looking through my microscope or my dad’s telescope, or I would be drawing, reading comic books or going to exhibitions. I guess it’s not fair to say they are the same, but they are two sides of a coin; two things that go well together. Some people will say that you can’t separate the arts and sciences, or that they are the same, or that they are different. I don’t know what the answer to that is. All I know is that they have always interested me equally and I don’t see why anyone would say that you can’t do both. But, believe me, they told me that in English school. When I was a kid, you were not allowed to combine the arts and sciences. It had to be one or the other.
Science explains to us how things work – how the world works, how the universe works. It puts us in context, in a place that we can begin to understand. Okay, we’re a species that evolved from apes, that evolved from going back to amphibians and fish and early life. Our planet was created from material from the solar disk and we are one planet among many in this galaxy. We can’t fully grasp it, but we can see it in context. We’re here on this planet and here’s what we know about our history and the history of the solar system and our place in it. To me, science is the nuts and bolts part: how old it is, how big it is, how much it weighs, how we got here, how many species of parrot there are.
Art shows us the majesty of it. Art does the bits that we can’t explain. We can’t explain what was there before the Big Bang, or where we would go if we could travel faster than light, or if there are alien civilizations out there. We can’t explain that yet, but we can through art. I don’t just mean painting – I mean film and literature and music and comic books and even good television; all the wonderful things we’ve created. To me, the arts are an expression of the parts that science can’t explain. Why wouldn’t they go together?
Somebody that I left off my list of inspirational figures was Chesley Bonestell, who was an early space painter. He did the illustrations in my first astronomy book and he imagined what the surface of other planets looked like. To me, that exemplifies perfectly what I was just saying about science and the arts. When I was a kid in the 1960s, we didn’t know what the surface of Pluto looked like. We still don’t, really, though we have a better idea, but we don’t know it in a Chesley Bonestell way. We haven’t stood on the surface of Pluto and looked at the neighboring planets, but Chesley did, in his mind. It’s easy to look at those paintings today and say, “Oh, he got it wrong,” but don’t even go there. He was an amazing artist and those paintings are mind-blowing in their beauty. I would lie in bed at night and gaze at the surface of Neptune and this frozen blue-green lake of methane ice, and the planets and the rings of Saturn, and I so wanted to go there. I really wanted more than anything to go there. I couldn’t go there in a scientific way because I was a kid, and we don’t have a ship that can take us there even if I wasn’t a kid. But I could go there with Chesley, in his mind. In a way, Chesley’s paintings are better than the real thing, because when you see a black and white photo of Pluto – don’t get me wrong, it’s totally amazing and the technological achievement is astonishing – but, for me, nothing will ever be quite as amazing as those paintings. His imagination was so vibrant and he took us – the kids of my generation – with him.
Why would you want to separate those two things? What could be better than an artist taking the scientific information of the day and extrapolating it into what he thinks that planet might be. I do that in my work all the time. We do ads and videos for the meteorite company and other science projects and I try to instill that wonder into it. I’ve done it many times – book covers, posters, postcards, this and that – and I don’t want to keep doing the same thing every time. I go back to Joe Strummer: do something they’re not expecting. I try to take the wonder of Chesley Bonestell and other artists I admire and insert it into the scientific part. We’ve got a meteorite company and we sell meteorites that come from outer space, so what is the most exciting thing about that? Let’s make it look engaging.
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You have two current projects that are both great examples of how you strive to combine the arts and sciences in your work. Tell me about those.
There are two projects I’m working on at present related to that; one medium-sized and one gargantuan in size. The medium-sized one is called Empirical World: Faces and Friends of Science. I have written three books, have published several books for other people, and have contributed to many books. But I have never done a photography book. I have been in love with photography since I was about 7 years old and my parents gave me an Instamatic 100 camera. I immediately shot the whole roll of film. I took 24 pictures of the front yard and my parents said, “You’ve got to learn discretion. You’ve got to learn to find the interesting things and take pictures of them. Don’t take pictures of everything in existence.” So, I did that for many years with film cameras – I took pictures of the interesting things. Now that we have digital cameras, I am back to taking pictures of everything in existence, and you know what? My parents can’t stop me. I’ve got 64-gig cards in my cameras and I photograph everything in existence.
My idea behind Empirical World was to make a statement about science, but not the same old statement about how important it is and the kids and this and that. If you don’t already know the importance of science, I am not going to be able to convince you. What I want to show you are the people who do science and why they are amazing. They are diverse. They are brilliant. Some of them are kooky. They are passionate, committed, dedicated. They are definitely out of the box.
So, here is the perfect expression, for me – once again, injecting the art into the science – and taking one hundred photographs of scientists and their friends and supporters. It is mostly scientists, teachers and academics; some astronauts, paleontologists, STEM advocates; a couple of film directors and a couple of cartoonists; and all of them wrapped up into this book. All of them are doing science, making science, or actively supporting science – talking about it in one way or another. The book will be one hundred fine art black-and-white photographs, each one accompanied by a statement by the person.
It will be published as the most beautiful fine art book that I can make. The point of this is that I want people to see the humanity and the heart behind the lab. We’ve all seen the labs. We’ve seen the dinosaurs. We’ve seen the rockets. I want you to see the faces of the people that make them and learn, understand, and hopefully be inspired by how they give of themselves to an extraordinary degree to further science learning, education and outreach. The book is well underway. I came up with a list of one hundred people – some of them, maybe dreaming a little too high – but I got most of them. In my travels, I have met people that I never would have imagined I would encounter, like an 18-year-old guy, who is not even a biologist, who has cured Parkinson’s disease in flies. He’s 18! These are the people who are pictured in the book and my goal is for it to see print in early 2018.
The gargantuan project is the Science, Arts and Space Institute. I have loved museums since I was a kid. Almost nothing makes me happier than being in a good museum and being with the exhibits. Going to a good museum, especially a natural history museum, is like time travel. You are able to connect with the work of the people who went before us – their expeditions, the samples they collected. You can see the genesis of learning.
Often you will go to a museum and you will see something and the label will have changed since it was originally collected in 1860. There will be a little piece and it will say, “In 1860, this particular fossil was thought to be a whale, but we have since discovered it was actually a marine-going reptile.” You can actually see the process of discovery documented – discovering our own mistakes, in a good-natured way. It’s easy to look back and say, “Oh, the paleontologists in the 19th century were stupid. They didn’t know anything.” No, they were brilliant! They were inventing the science as they went. We have to look back and respect how well they did with their limited tools. They didn’t have electron microscopes, air scribes, satellite imagery, ground penetrating radar – all the things we can use today. They were doing this with a couple of trowels and a hammer. Museums allow us to see the evolution, the genesis and the growth of learning of science and understanding, which is a marvelous thing.
If I had to pick a favorite book – probably my favorite book of all time – it is the Dr. Seuss book, If I Ran the Zoo. It was pivotal text in my childhood. It’s about a little boy who goes to visit the zoo and he talks to the tired old zookeeper. This little kid is pretty full of himself and he says, “If I ran the zoo, this is what I would do.” He goes all over the world and collects these incredibly bizarre animals through a series of preposterous adventures. It’s absolutely incredible, funny and uplifting. At the end, there is the zoo as he imagined it and it’s populated with this giant giraffe-like thing with a neck so long it comes up out of the top of the building. And the old zookeeper is still standing there – I think he’s nodded off while the kid is relating his fantastically imaginative discourse on what he would do if he was the zookeeper.
My version is, If I Ran the Museum. I can imagine this happening: I go to the natural history museum and I’m standing there talking to the old curator, saying, “If I was in charge of the museum, we would have dinosaurs and a spaceship and robots and a thing where kids can – I don’t know – drop a big thing off the roof in slow motion and have a splashdown in a pool.” It would be crazy.
I have done so much outreach work over the years and I have curated exhibitions. I designed and curated an exhibition called, “They Came from Outer Space,” for the Challenger Space Center in Arizona. It ran for two years and was seen by 100,000 people. So, I know we can do it. I want to do that on a bigger scale. I want to have a science museum in my adopted home of Tucson, because we don’t have one. Don’t get me wrong; there are some amazing museums in Tucson, but what we don’t have is a fun, modern, evolving, interactive science museum for kids of all ages. When I say science, I don’t mean a diagram of ape-to-man with a little wheel that you can turn. I want spacesuits, robots, dinosaurs and meteorites.
In order to get there, we founded a nonprofit called the Science, Arts and Space Institute. Wow, doesn’t this go back to your question earlier: I am integrating science and art so much that they are in the same foundation now. I really wish a couple of my English school teachers were still alive and they would come along and say, “Notkin, we told you as a boy that you can’t have science and the arts together.” I’m going to show you that we can.
I have assembled a group of people that I admire who have experience and expertise in these areas and we are raising funds with the purpose of making something magical and wonderful. I want it to be a place that I would have gone to as a kid and been transfixed with joy. That’s my goal: to transmit that wonder I felt as a kid to other kids and adults. It’s for everyone. I want to show the wonder, not to talk about it. I want people to be able to touch things. I want videos, live performances, readings, art exhibitions, and we hope to have an artist-in-residence program.
It will be a living, changing museum, just as we are living and changing beings in a living and changing world, and hopefully changing for the better. The website is scienceartsandspace.org. We are a registered nonprofit and we welcome donations, help, advice and ideas of all sorts. This is a group effort and anyone who is the least bit interested is invited to get in touch with us and become involved.
Photo © Desert Owl Productions.
The museum sounds amazing and I can’t wait to see your vision come to fruition. Before we close, is there anything else you would like to add?
My closing thought is for people who are interested in my career, or a similar career, or doing similar things, who might look at this story and think, “Well, I could never do that.” When I was a kid and I wanted to be in a band, I looked at the bands that were playing like Yes, Genesis, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Rush, Deep Purple – no disrespect, but they were very technical bands with a deep degree of musical proficiency – and I thought, “I could never do that.” I could never play keyboards like Rick Wakeman – the guy has like 18 keyboards on stage. But, then, the punk rock revolution happened and I thought, “I could do that.” That doesn’t look too hard.
You get somewhere by starting. You just need the right inspiration to do that. The best way to make things happen is to go out and be available, be present. Many of the greatest opportunities that have arrived in my life have happened at the most unexpected times. You can make plans and say, “Here’s my business plan, and here’s my five-year plan, and after one year we will have accomplished this, and after two years we will have accomplished that.” I’m not putting that down, but that doesn’t work for me. I know it works for some people. What works for me is to do what I think we should do to the best of our ability and take it out to the world – go to events and museums, cocktail parties and film premieres. You might think, “Oh, I would never get invited to things like that.” Yes, you would! You just have to express interest. Look online and look at the things that are going on. What are you interested in? Geology, astronomy, fine arts? Go to things. Meet people.
I think one of the central dichotomies in my existence is that I am a scientist, but I also believe in metaphysical things to a reasonable degree. It seems that if you have a positive attitude and you say, “I want this thing to happen. How do I get there? I’m not really sure, but while I’m thinking about it, let me go to this art opening. Let me go to this film screening. Now I’m going to go to Challenger Space Center because there’s an event and I’ll talk to people – and you meet a guy who says, ‘You’re exactly the guy I’m looking for and exactly the project I need; you’ll be perfect for that.” It never would have happened if I didn’t go out. Those are the things that you cannot plan for, the unexpected things, the things that happen entirely by coincidence, if you feel that way, or maybe through some sort of quantum-mechanic metaphysical intervention, if you believe in that sort of thing. It does seem, somehow, even though it seems to fly in the face of scientific belief and understanding, that if you think in a positive way about things, sometimes they happen. I can’t explain it, but, whatever the explanation, it seems to be working, so I’m going to keep doing it.
That is what I encourage you to do. If you have a dream, you might say, “Gosh, I could never get there. I could never do that.” I think about Joseph Campbell, another inspiring figure, the author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He talked about this very thing. He said we all carry fear and doubt in us. The example he uses is, you read a book and think, “I’d like to write, but I could never be a writer. I could never write anything as good as that.” Really? Maybe not. Or maybe you would just write something that’s different, and the next generation would look at it and think, “I could never write something that good.”
Joseph Campbell’s view is that we all have to take the hero’s journey. Go on a journey of self-discovery and experience. He said we have to be heroes in our own lives. That doesn’t mean a war hero or that you have to get up on a hill and raise a flag and lead people. It means you have to be a hero to yourself. You have to have the courage to say, “Well, it seems like it would be an impossible task to write a book, find a meteorite, travel around the world, be in a television show, make a movie, or build a museum.” But you won’t know unless you start.
Edmund Hillary, the great mountaineer, quoted Goethe in his own way, and I’m paraphrasing, “When you make a decision, it seems that, somehow, unseen forces begin to assist you.” At the moment of decision – I’ve made a decision, I’m going to do this – somehow, it seems that there are other forces at work. Someone shows up and says, “Oh, I was thinking of doing that, too. Maybe I can help you.”
I pass along Joseph Campbell’s wisdom. Be a hero in your own life. We all have self-doubt. We all have to overcome things. But, in overcoming, you open yourself up to the opportunity to accept the next amazing thing that is coming your way.
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About Geoffrey Notkin: A television host, professional meteorite hunter, author and photographer, Notkin is president of Aerolite Meteorites, Inc., the world’s largest commercial meteorite company. He starred for three seasons on Science Channel's award-winning TV show Meteorite Men, and hosted the Emmy-winning educational TV series STEM Journals for Cox Media. He has also made documentaries for National Geographic, Discovery, PBS, BBC, History Channel, A&E, and Travel Channel. Notkin has written more than 150 published articles on meteoritics, paleontology, adventure travel, history, and the arts, and is the author of three books. The minor planet 132904, discovered at Mount Palomar, was named "Notkin" and approved by the Minor Planet Center in recognition of Geoff's contributions to science and education.
"METEORITES ARE THE MOST REMARKABLE THINGS on our planet and they are the only things we can own that are not originally from this planet. Meteorites are rocks that have fallen to Earth from outer space, and survived a fiery passage through our atmosphere. They are the remnants of long-dead planets and asteroids, and most originated in the Asteroid Belt, between Mars and Jupiter. Others may have traveled even further, their origins lying in distant, unknown points outside our own solar system. Some meteorites may be all that has survived from the nucleus of an ancient comet. Others, such as carbonaceous chondrites, are believed to contain materials that pre-date our own planet and even the Solar System itself! As such, they are the oldest things any human has ever touched and carry within whispers of an existence so ancient we can barely comprehend it. And now, I invite you to explore our website, and begin your own adventures in the world of meteorites."
— Geoffrey Notkin - President, Aerolite Meteorites, Inc.
If you are interested in learning more about Aerolite Meteorites, click here.
"We did this. We took a stand for science and education, for learning and critical thought, and we altered the experiment. We invite you to be one of the first to become a member and join us in building a great Science, Arts and Space learning institute in Tucson, Arizona. Our mission is to share our passion for science, the arts and space by providing exceptional educational programs, exhibits and resources that are accessible to everyone."
— Geoffrey Notkin - Founder, Science, Arts and Space Institute
If you are interested in learning more about the Science, Arts and Space Institute, click here.