Yesterday, as previously mentioned, I was at the magnificent National Weather Center at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, giving a speech to this conference about science communication. I’m hoping that the talk—which covered anything from the work of the 18th century French philosophe the Marquis de Condorcet to the unfortunate depictions of science in Hollywood films—will eventually be available online. Meanwhile, though, I’d like to remark on a spectacular encounter I had at the event. We tend to complain and critique on blogs; this post will be the opposite.
In the first floor lobby of the airy National Weather Center, where the tornado investigating devices “Dorothy” and “TOTO” are on display, there’s also a large suspended globe which acts as a spherical screen. Four projectors flash onto it simultaneously, so that it is possible to fully project the entire globe’s weather as provided by satellites. It’s called SphereCasting, NOAA’s “Science on a Sphere” program, and I can only call it magnificent. If there’s a better technology for explaining science to the interested public, I can’t think of it. And apparently there are now 30 such spheres in existence.
The sphere doesn’t merely allow one to display weather everywhere all at once. You can pretty much project anything onto it with the right program. You can make the sphere into Mars, or Jupiter, or Titan, or the Sun. The woman who gave me a brief tour of how it works even said she was waiting for the program that would let her turn it into the Death Star. And it’s hard to see why one couldn’t also project the results of global climate models up there. Frankly, the possibilities are vast, if not endless.
It was only a coincidence, but I encountered the Sphere while in the middle of reading a great early 19th century work of scientific exploration, Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctical Regions of the New Continent (South America). Humboldt, as our Princeton prof D. Graham Burnett explains, had a pioneering global vision of science. Frankly, it was far more than any single man could accomplish, but Humboldt sure tried. As he scaled mountains and thwacked his way through rainforests, he was constantly taking measurements with dozens of instruments—gauging temperature, pressure, humidity, and so on—as well as analyzing the ecological distributions of plant and animal species, rocks and minerals. Humboldt felt that by having a fully geographic picture of how all these different parameters varied, across the planet, universal laws would gradually present themselves.
Science on a Sphere is, in a sense, the ultimate culmination of Humboldt’s vision. Our instruments are vastly better–especially our satellites–and we now have so much good data that we can spatially organize it on an actual globe in real time. And then you can just go look—watching as hurricanes form, as the easterlies and westerlies flow, as the fronts move through and the temperatures change. While I’m not sure that there are any more universal laws to discover in this way, there’s still a great need to share those laws with the non-scientist public, and I can’t think of a better way of doing so.
Links to this Post
- Watching data on a sphere « A Man With A Ph.D. | April 6, 2009
- Watching data on a sphere « Path To Sustainable | April 6, 2009
- Long Beach, California | The Intersection | Discover Magazine | May 13, 2009