The Wonders of SphereCasting

By Chris Mooney | April 3, 2009 3:16 pm

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.

sos_home_img.jpgIn 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.

Comments (9)

  1. It’s one of the best part’s of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s new Sant Ocean Hall, in my opinion.

  2. “part’s”?

    Looks like I need to revisit the Bob the Angry Flower cartoon on apostrophes.

  3. that is nifty and keen.

  4. Jon Winsor

    Kind-of, sort-of, on the subject of the Marquis de Condorcet, here’s a neat recent podcast on Raphael’s “School of Athens”:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/inourtime/inourtime_20090326.shtml

    I was interested that Kant and Hegel were briefly mentioned as being in modern times on the Plato side of the divide.

    If PZ Myers painted it, Aristotle would be gesturing at Plato with a certain single digit instead of the downward motion of the hand and probably the picture would be a bar fight between the two sides of the room.

    I think in his interview with Christopher Lydon, Daniel Dennett put his finger on the battle line. Dennett said that he did not make a distinction between Geisteswissenschaften and Naturwissenschaften, something that someone like Wilhelm Dilthey strongly resisted, and I think modern people with sensibilities like Dilthey’s instinctively resist it as well…

  5. MadScientist

    I want one for my bedroom!

    That would provide a great view of the earth from space. On the dark side we might even imagine seeing lightning flickering about the globe. I’d throw in some LCD shutter goggles and make 3D projections on the globe. Then again I could get myself a kitty and an iron glove and plan my world conquest with the pretty project-a-marble. On the other hand, just to mess with people’s perceptions, I might carve a hemispherical niche in my wall and project into the niche but make it appear as though the image protrudes from the wall. The possibilities are endless!

  6. Daphne T

    I’m glad you enjoyed the tour I gave you of the sphere. We enjoyed your talk here at the National Weather Center, however you should have added “Twister” to your list of bad science movies. It would have made your talk just that much more relevant to your audience. ;-)

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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