I Took Jeff Mills to an Observatory Because He’s Such a Space Geek
And yep, the techno titan loved it.
"Wow, this is insane." Jeff Mills is standing on rickety stairs in the observatory of the University of Amsterdam, peering through a telescope at the sun. Moments earlier, the roof opened with an impressive noise. He's smiling. "I can see so many solar flares. How high are those?" "Thousands and thousands of miles, probably. They could easily be as big as our entire planet," says astronomer Lucas Ellerbroek. Mills and his wife/manager Yoko are being guided around by Ellerbroek, and are eagerly taking in all the information. Mills keeps asking questions and pointing out facts.
If you've followed the techno legend's career even just a little bit, you'll know he's a huge space nerd. In the same manner that sci-fi writers try to weave in the latest scientific discoveries into their stories, Mills tries to incorporate astronomical updates into his music. His entire musical output of the last ten years or so has revolved around the universe. He made albums about Alpha Centauri and Proxima Centauri, compositions about astronauts and live shows that symbolize time travel. Tonight, he will perform his piece The Planets, inspired by the composition of the same name by Gustav Holst, in the Royal Concert Hall in Amsterdam.
That's why I thought it would be fun to visit the observatory with Mills, and he agreed. Lucas Ellerbroek was equally excited by the idea and joined us. The astronomer recently published a book called Planetenjagers [Planet Hunters, in English.], about the search of planets that resemble Earth. Mills was happy to meet him. "Ever since I was a child, I loved looking at the stars," he says. "I grew up in Detroit, where there's too much light pollution to get a good look at the sky, but my parents often took me on vacations. To me, the idea of being able to look at a clear, dark sky was something to be excited about for months. I grew up reading and collecting comic books. I had everything from Marvel and a little from DC. That was the thing I liked best, and then came TV shows and movies. I learned about Alpha Centauri when I watched the series Lost in Space. It's about a team that tries to reach that star, but gets lost. So that's why, at five years old, I already knew about the universe. Thanks to a TV show."
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The scientific research Ellerbroek and his colleagues do can be quite abstract and hard to understand "for layman like myself," says Mills. Art, music and sci-fi can help to make such complicated matters easier to digest, and can function as thought experiments for what the future might hold. "My favorite things to look at are space exploration, planets and the possibility of colonizing them. Back in school, I was never good at math and science, but I thought: what if I could translate those ideas to electronic music, to blur the lines a bit? I hope to educate my audience. At least a little."
In the meantime we've moved from the solar telescope to the telescope for watching stars. Ellerbroek shows us a bunch of videos, and with the (free to download) app Stellarium, he wanders through the universe. "Hey, something's moving!" Mills points at the screen. "Ah, that might be a satellite." Slowly but surely Mills is getting more relaxed and easygoing. "Man, I'd love to have a telescope like this on my roof. I mean, I have a small one, but nothing like this."
Ellerbroek uses the app to show which exoplanets—planets in other galaxies—have been discovered. "The first one was only discovered in 1995. It was the dawn of a new scientific pursuit: the search of planets like our own. Have you heard the news that the first planet near Proxima Centauri has been discovered? If we could ever get that far, it would be the first planet we'd travel to. It's so exciting."
He points to a small patch in the sky, where there's seemingly thousands of exoplanets. For five years, the Kepler Space Observatory was pointed at that small area. Time and time again new planets are discovered. "And this is just the tip of the iceberg," says Ellerbroek. "This tells us that there are more planets than stars. Can you imagine?" I'm starting to get dizzy at the thought of so many planets. It's hard to comprehend. Mills agrees. He starts to stammer: "Wow... eh... what... people that think there's no life outside of our planet? I mean it has to be there. From a science fiction viewpoint, it's interesting to think: what's looking at us from those planets? Are they alarmed by the fact we're searching for them? Maybe they can feel it."
Ellerbroek starts talking enthusiastically about the movie Contact. "As soon as the aliens in that film make contact with Earth, they send a fragment of the first radio waves humankind sent into space. They're recordings of Hitler on the radio. Not a weird thought, maybe there's creatures out there that pick up those radio waves right now."
But before we can even think about travelling to planets in other galaxies, Mills thinks it's interesting enough to explore the planets in our own solar system. That's exactly what his piece The Planets is about. "I was inspired by Gustav Holst, who wrote a seven-movement orchestral suite about the planets, a hundred years ago. But where he focused on Greek mythology, I look at the science, the physical properties of the planets and how you could move around them. It's fantasy and science fiction, but based on actual science. Just before the first performance, water was discovered on Pluto. So we put similar motifs in the compositions of Earth and Pluto at the last minute. Saturn spins the fastest, so that piece has the fastest tempo. There's even a small passage with bass flute and horn that's dedicated to Saturn's moon Titan. The idea is that if you listen to The Planets, you get a better understanding of the planets.
Mills spoke at length with Mamoru Mohri, Japan's first astronaut, who was launched into space in 1992 and 2000. Mills made a piece about him, Where The Light Ends, but used his input in many more musical pieces. "I asked him what it was like to go into space, what the sun looks like with the naked eye, what it's like to be in total darkness. But also: what did he think the universe is? I told him I had the idea that it's this kind of living organism, a gigantic organism that we're all part of. He agreed. In the end, we're all a product of the universe, and the most important thing in the history of mankind is understanding where we come from and where we're headed. It's so incredibly important to find those answers."