Our newest TED-Ed Lesson was made entirely out of chalk

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When Justin Dowd worked as a food runner, he would sometimes doodle on the chalkboard in the restaurant where he worked. He might have been surprised to know then that this skill he was developing would someday win him a trip into space. We caught up with Dowd, who wrote and animated today’s TED-Ed Lesson ‘Could comets be the source of life on Earth?‘ to talk about his upcoming trip to the cosmos, the wonders of working with chalk, and a few of the most amazing scientific discoveries in recent history.

The lesson looks beautiful. How did you get started working with chalk?

Justin Dowd: I’ve been doing chalk videos for about four years. The first time I ever drew on a chalkboard was in the kitchen of a restaurant, where I was a food runner, and that’s actually how I learned to draw on them. The restaurant had a unique chalkboard where it wasn’t slate — it was wallboard that had chalkboard paint over it — and that has texture, which allows you to work the chalk with your fingers and get really bright colors out of it.

For some reason, chalk and I get along. It’s kind of like a finger painting that’s dry because every color and every chalk stroke is gone over with your hands. You can dip your fingers in the powder and then apply that and use your hands as a brush. And you can also erase it with your hands and move an image around. So when you’re doing animation, instead of doing multiple pictures that are separate, you can draw one mural and just manipulate the mural so that the images on it are slowly moving, and take pictures as you go, which results in animation once you have around 1,000 pictures for a minute or two of video. It’s kind of gritty, and I get a lot of depth in the images.

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From L to R: Drawn line of chalk, two lines of chalk shaded with a finger, circle of chalk shaded with a finger, chalk ground into powder for stars

Very cool. Are there any specific challenges to keep in mind when working with chalk?

JD: I tried to take this lesson up a notch from what I’ve done in the past. I wanted to go all-out. So I tried a lot of new, experimental techniques, and developing those was the hardest part because with pretty much everything that I’ve done in animation, the first idea looks good on paper, but then when you try and do it, it doesn’t work out. Some of the best things that I’ve learned how to do with chalk have been accidents.

For example, the stars that I use in the space images are ground up chalk, into powder. You just pick up a little bit of chalk, snap your fingers, and tiny specks of it fall down on a chalkboard that’s laid horizontally, and it looks just like stars. And the first time that I noticed that was when I was drawing on the chalkboard. And I looked down at all these little specks, and it looked just like stars — and that’s something that I’d been trying to figure out. So I’ve been using that technique ever since.

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Dowd’s home animation set-up

How did you pick the topic for your lesson?

JD: The lesson is about the discovery of amino acids and DNA-based pairs in the tails of comets, and the discovery that one out of five stars in our galaxy has a planet orbiting in it with a similar size and temperature to Earth. And those are two discoveries have been made recently — I think that the amino acids discovery was made in 2004, and the Kepler study, which was the study that revealed about 40 million planets that are similar to Earth in our galaxy, came out about six months ago. So these are both really, really recent discoveries that are indicating that the building blocks for proteins and DNA are common throughout our galaxy.

The last three years in physics have been the most exciting few years in I’m guessing about 20 because there’s just been an extremely high density of amazing discoveries that people have been waiting for for decades. So it’s cool to pick these topics that have information in them that nobody has ever known before, that we know for the first time ever this year.

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A still from the final animation

Speaking of space … you’re going to visit soon. Tell us a little about the competition you entered that won you this trip to space.

JD: I heard about it while I was doing a Sudoku on the T in Boston. They had an article about it in the Metro newspaper. I decided to enter, and to do something different, I decided to make animated videos using chalkboards explaining the basics of relativity. And I didn’t expect to win. It was really a shot in the dark, but I’m extremely lucky to have been able to get a trip to space in the end.

When is the trip?

JD: It should be about a year from now. They’re finishing the rocket in the Mojave Desert right now.  I can’t wait. I would fly tomorrow morning if I could.

How long will you be in space?

JD: It’s a short trip. It’s kind of like being shot out of a cannon straight up. It takes four minutes to get about 65-70 miles up. It goes three times the speed of sound, and we float for about 15 minutes, and then re-enter the atmosphere, and the rocket becomes a glider and glides back and lands on a runway like a plane. It’ll take about an hour and a half. Most of it is gliding back down.

That’s going to be amazing. Congratulations. Any last thoughts? Any favorite parts about this lesson?

JD: Well, my favorite fact in the lesson is the discovery that there are 40 million planets similar to Earth that likely have DNA base-pairs, and the building blocks of proteins are planted in all of them by comets. And I’ll see shows on all these science channels where it’s like, “Comets: Apocalypse Doomsday,” and all these different things that make the solar system and the galaxy seem hostile. But the more that we study the universe and the galaxy, the more these things like comets that appear to be hostile are actually factories for creating the raw materials of life. And the laws of the universe give us little pockets of safety, and outside of these pockets, in space, are actually the perfect conditions to create the building blocks of life.

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