Levin: Science On A Sphere

Feb 24, 2017

Five years ago, when St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire built a new science and math building, a decision was made to suspend a nearly six-foot diameter, white latex-painted globe called Science-on-a-Sphere from the ceiling of the third-floor conference room.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - or NOAA - designed the globe with a spherical projection system operated by a computer that transmits data to four projectors mounted ninety degrees apart.

High-resolution, animated images derived from planetary datasets, flow across the circular screen.

The globe appears to rotate, which illuminates complicated earthly processes far beyond the abilities of a more conventional flat screen slide-show. Watching it, I feel like an astronaut.

In the past decade, NOAA has installed more than 130 Spheres worldwide, mostly in museums, universities, zoos, and research institutions. Two, including the one at St. Paul’s, are in high schools.

The computer warms up and the day begins to move across the globe, awakening continents as if a curtain is lifting. It’s mesmerizing.

Then the daily cycle of airplane flights moves around the circular screen like swarms of phosphorescent bees, pulsing with the rising and the setting of the sun.

Suspended mid-room from three chains, this replica of Earth almost seems to breathe; it’s the famous big blue marble, where white clouds gather and disperse over blue oceans and green and brown continents … in a time-lapse dance.

The sphere is also a window with views of both the past and the probable future. On screen, circa 1990, Arctic sea ice begins to shrink. Like a white beating heart, ice spreads in the winter, vanishes in the summer; winter maximums shrinking as time advances.

I don’t have to see the forlorn polar bear dog-paddling miles from shore. I just imagine it superimposed on the screen images of ruined ice.

Another dataset shows human population growth, predicted to reach nine billion by 2050, and the progressive worldwide increase of pasture and cropland, at the expense of native carbon-storing vegetation. It’s troubling. Everywhere and quickly, air temperature, water temperature, and atmospheric carbon dioxide rise, while concurrently and alarmingly seawater turns to vinegar.

It’s all right in front of me on a spinning latex Earth - a three-dimensional glimpse into a future we deny at our peril.