The lumpy 3D Earth

By Phil Plait | April 21, 2011 6:59 am

Last month, scientists using the GOCE spacecraft released a model of the Earth’s geoid: essentially, a shape telling you which way is down. If the Earth were a perfectly smooth sphere of constant density throughout, gravity would pull you straight down to the center (perpendicular to the surface). But if a dense hill were nearby, the gravity of that hill would change the direction of the force of gravity. The geoid maps that, and is very useful to understand things like ocean currents and such.

The resulting geoid resembles a bizarre, lumpy Earth. It was pretty neat, but now Nathanial Burton-Bradford has made it better: he took the data and made 3D anaglyphs!

This one shows the view over North and South America. It doesn’t look like much to the eye, but if you have red/green or red/blue 3D glasses, the 3D jumps right out at you. He has lots more of these from various angles over the Earth’s geoid model, and man are they weird. There’s something truly odd about seeing the Earth this way.

He has lots of other 3D images he’s made (I’ve linked to his incredible Apollo pictures before), including some amazing ones of icicles and such, at that link. If you have the 3D glasses it’s really worth perusing them.

Related posts:

Phobos is, like, totally groovy
3D Mercury crater
The depth of space
Martian mesa in 3D

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (24)

Links to this Post

  1. Links und Videos der Woche (2011/15+16) :: cimddwc | April 24, 2011
  1. I need to get me some old school 3D glasses!

  2. Erin N.

    I can’t wait until a globe manufacturer creates a physical representation…

  3. Juergen

    Are the areas where the geoid has “high terrain” areas with lower or higher gravity? If we look at currents, for example, would they flow from the high to low areas, or from low to high (as they go to the higher gravity)?

  4. Doug

    I’m with you, Larian! I’m too young to have an old pair wasting away in a junk drawer.

    Where’s the easiest place to get 3D glasses these days?

  5. My dad worked on computing an earlier geoid back in the Sixties at the Defense Mapping Agency. His job title was “mathematician” because nobody was called a software engineer back then.

  6. David Vanderschel

    I checked out some of Nathaniel’s other efforts on his flickr site. On one of Mars terrain picture, he credits an animation by Doug Ellison ( as the source for his data. I checked out Ellison’s site because I have always maintained that a simulated flyover animation would be a much more effective way of giving a more natural ‘feel’ to the 3D information. The animations I observed there confirm this for me.

    The problem I have with stereoscopic vision is that, in reality, it only works for short ranges. Beyond about 60 feet, stereo does not really help much. To exploit it on large distant objects, you have to exaggerate the effect by effectively placing the eyepoints much farther apart than they are on a human face. I.e., a human at the actual scene could not perceive what is presented as a 3D stereo pair. What you see in such a stereo pair is more like what a human would see if he were overlooking a small scale model of the scene at a distance of a few feet. OTOH, a human at the scene can appreciate and interpret for 3D purposes the parallax effects that are evoked by the motion. I suspect that our brain’s are at least as adept at interpreting parallax effects for 3D as they are for interpreting stereo image pairs. I believe that such animations are actually far more effective at presenting 3D information than are stereo pairs – and they don’t require special glasses. I would like to see a lot more of them.

  7. Michel

    For those who don´t have red-green glasses.
    Enjoy The World Record Rube Goldberg Machine 2011 made by the Purdue University.
    And yes, it starts with The Big Bang!

    It´s a must see also for those with glasses, altough it isn´t in 3D. So take ´m off.

  8. Forgive the bit off topic. Just some news in the “it was bound to happen” category:

  9. One Eyed Jack

    @#7 Michael

    It may start with the big bang but they couldn’t resist sticking an ark in there. Ugh.

    Nice video, but I prefer OK Go, even though I imagine it had a lot of behind the scenes help to time and trigger things.

  10. To those without red/blue glasses, I just got my pair in the mail–free plus $1.50 S&H from Mystery Guitar Man, here:*-3D-Glasses/ (limit one per order/person/whatever.)

    First time I’ve actually had a pair handy for one of BA’s posts! 😀

  11. David Vanderschel

    You can get Anaglyph 3D glasses for FREE from Rainbow Symphony if you include a SASE with your request. You can easily guess the Web address of Rainbow Symphony.

  12. TJ Czeck

    @3 Juergen: Go see Phil’s original post. It will give a better and fuller explanation. The short version is the surface of the geoid is a constant gravity level. You would feel the same pull of gravity if you were standing on a “hill” or in a “valley”.

    The 3D pics are AMAZING! FWIW, I got my glasses from a documentary called “Trinity and Beyond The Atomic Bomb Movie” directed by Peter Kuran.

  13. Messier Tidy Upper

    Shhh … Don’t tell the IAU about this – or Earth will get demoted and stop being a planet! 😉

  14. Wzrd1

    I have a dozen of the 3D glasses, never COULD see a 3D image without literally getting a headache and THEN for a few seconds. :/
    THAT said, I HAVE saw other “bumpy Earth” images of the gravitational field. They gave me things to consider, which was crazy cool! :)

  15. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 2. Erin N. : “I can’t wait until a globe manufacturer creates a physical representation…”

    I happen to own one small globe with a very big dent in it! I keep saying the dent (over the Pacific & northern Queensland, Australia) must represent a major impact event but perhaps it was just an early draft attempt at accurately representing this! 😉

  16. Michel

    @One Eyed Jack
    Ok, it has the ark, but still it ends correctly in 2012…

  17. Joshua

    It looks as though much of western North America is the super volcano with Wyoming at it’s crater.

  18. Nicholas

    This is somewhat unrelated, but it’s something I’ve been wanting to know for a long time. I discovered ‘stereoscopic images’ almost a decade ago now, where you see a 3D image by crossing or relaxing your eyes. This technique allows full color 3D images without the need for any glasses, whereas anaglyphs have limited color reproduction, require the viewer to have special glasses, and often provide unsatisfactory results.

    So why are all these space related images released as anaglyphs instead of stereoscopic images? I get very depressed when I boot up my work computer in the morning, see something cool like this come across, and must, yet again, pass on experiencing it…

  19. Lila

    Oh my…not too flattering. A good wardrobe stylist could help hide those unsightly lumps.

  20. @ ^ Lila : Or does Earth need planetary liposuction or a regular jog out to Pluto’s orbit & back? 😉

  21. Jon

    What’s up with Hawaii?

  22. Lavocat

    The Yellowstone caldera looks like an acne pustule about to burst.


  23. mike burhart

    Even tho the Earth is round it is not a perfect sphere as this shows in nature rarely is there perfect gemontry.By the way there is a group called the flat Earth socitey that beleves the Earth is a flat disk and is very anti-science they are one of the driving forces behind the so called Moon landing hoax in fact they say that no one has gone into space the space program is a hoax they say.Forturenly this group is not big and only has a few members and Phil to deal with.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar