Story last updated at 6/3/2009 - 12:23 pm
JUNEAU - A person may read all the information that exists about the rate that the polar ice caps are melting or how many Earths can fit inside of the sun, but statistics are just statistics until that data is translated visually. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has pioneered new technology that allows scientific data to be illustrated in 360 degrees, as if looking at the Earth from afar.
It's called Science On a Sphere (SOS) and Juneau is home to two of them. The first was installed at the Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute (NMFS), the second at the Alaska State Museum.
The sphere is simply a white, hollow ball suspended from the ceiling. Four projectors surround the sphere and cast images onto the sphere, blending seamlessly. The images can be still or animated and may consist of data, photos, artwork or video including sound.
The SOS system is connected to a network from which it can download data sets displaying atmospheric, ocean, land or astronomic data as well as simulations and other extras. There are nearly 300 data sets currently available, and scientists and designers around the world are constantly creating more.
SPECIES ON A SPHERE
Steve Lewis of NOAA Fisheries has been working on SOS data sets at the NMFS since the sphere was installed in September of last year. With the help of a couple of high school and college interns, Lewis has combed through "massive amounts of data" in hopes of creating data sets to display on the sphere.
"It gives the ability of non-scientists to view things on a global scale," Lewis said.
For Lewis' current project, he has taken data from fisheries around the world and created a data set that displays catch levels between 1950 and 2006. Each species of catch is displayed in its own unique color and the amount is shown using charts that update every few seconds as a new year's data is displayed.
"When people walk up to the sphere, they see this pie chart and see what different countries are catching," Lewis said. "You can look at things on a global level and really see what's going on with the fisheries."
Lewis' next task is to overlay this data set with another that shows climate records and weather data. His hope is to find the correlations between weather trends and the amount of biomass that is taken out of the oceans. SOS allows this type of research to be displayed in ways like never before. Lewis said it's so stunning that some of his colleagues "almost fell off the stairs" at first sight of it.
"All of a sudden, you see this stuff that has never been up there before," Lewis said. "It's going to be a great tool for us and we're processing data as quickly as we can."
The SOS at the NMFS will primarily be used for by scientists like Lewis for research and data display purposes. It will also be utilized during summer science camps and when school students visit the facility.
Juneau's second SOS display arrived at the Alaska State Museum in March. Museum staff are still working to finish the renovation that was necessary to install the sphere, but besides a bit of drywall dust the SOS is fully operational as the museum's newest permanent exhibit.
Lisa Golisek, security and visitor services coordinator at the Alaska State Museum, said the SOS system "works a lot like an iPod." Playlists may be developed by genre or subject, or users may customize their own playlist.
On the museum's current SOS playlist are data sets that relate to Alaska in some way. One data set shows evidence of climate change and another shows daylight and darkness around the globe during solstices. A favorite of the museum staff illustrates 24 hours of air traffic around the world.
There are also real time data sets that are updated every hour to show things like recent weather patterns and earthquakes.
Golisek said the museum hopes that docents and teachers will use the tool to develop custom data sets that are relevant to other exhibits. The sphere will also be available to artists as a vehicle for displaying their work.
"It's got a little of something for everyone from the visitors coming to Alaska to schoolchildren who are studying the earth," Golisek said.
A GLOBAL GIFT
NOAA financed the material and transportation costs for both of Juneau's spheres. The NMFS and the museum simply had to provide their own funding for installation and assume operational costs, which are minimal.
"This was a gift, in a sense," Golisek said.
Only 37 of these spheres exist around the globe. While most are in the United States, they have also been installed in international locations such as Taiwan, France, Mexico, and South Korea. So why did Juneau get two?
NOAA is committed to providing resources for scientists who are doing new and exciting things in their fields. According to Lewis, scientists in Juneau are doing just that and "that's exactly why there are two spheres here."
"These spheres around the world could really educate and raise awareness," Lewis said. "It's an exciting time to have a tool like this."
Libby Sterling may be reached at email@example.com