From Astrophysics to Architecture

By admin on January 13, 2016

IMG_7157_bw-crop-225x300From Astrophysics to Architecture
By: Rebecca Wilcox

Amongst my architecture school classmates, we often quoted a metal artist whom we worked with in one studio: “Architecture,” he said simply, “is BIG!” He meant this mostly figuratively, I think, but it always reminded me of the entirely literal line in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, quoting the Guide itself:

“Space,” it says, “is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

When I meet people in the context of architecture they are usually surprised to find out that I have an undergraduate degree in astronomy and physics and wonder how I came from that to architecture. My typical lame-joke answer is that the architecture and astrophysics buildings are more or less adjacent on the University of Washington campus, where I got both my B.S. in astrophysics and my Master of Architecture, and that I was simply working my way across campus. I wish I could say that I was just going alphabetically; it almost works and would be a much pithier answer.

Truthfully, I have always been interested in both fields, and feel lucky to have realized that one doesn’t necessarily have to follow a singular path forever.



Big architecture: the Arecibo Radio Telecope in Puerto Rico,

where Rebecca spent the summer doing research in 2002.

Astrophysics lured me in with the beauty of the night sky and big ideas about, literally, everything. In astronomy, the word “awesome” is not hyperbole. It’s also hard to say no to the opportunity to travel and do research with other people who like to geek out over blobs of gas in space. As an undergrad I spent life-altering school quarters at telescopes in Puerto Rico and Chile doing research.

Architecture, though Earth-bound, also offers an exploration of beauty and big ideas. The big difference is that the laws of the universe are fairly immutable, and just waiting for us to discover them, while the “laws” of architecture (with the exception of those that keep buildings from falling down) are only what we make them. In astrophysics we ask how things are, in architecture we ask how things should be.

Both are fascinating questions, but the fun of both astrophysics and architecture, for me, is in the problem solving. Details are important, but they are in service of the big picture. How can you find out what causes a supernova using a few stray photons hitting a sensor? How can you synthesize terabytes of raw data into an idea about how galaxies evolve? How do you synthesize the needs of individuals, businesses, government, the community, and the planet into a built environment? All BIG questions!


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