Science On a Sphere®: A Tale of Beach Balls and Star Wars

By Leslie Irwin, Fellow with OAR Communications

I felt like I was on a grade-school field trip–the giddy excitement of the NOAA employees around me was contagious. The lights of the auditorium-in-progress dimmed, voices hushed, and all eyes trained to the glowing orb suspended in the center of the room, which had suddenly transformed into a vision of our rotating planet Earth.

SOS3My first SOS experience

NOAA-Headquarters in Silver Spring, MD has apparently been waiting two years for its Science On a Sphere® (SOS) installation, and here it was. I had heard the story of how NOAA’s Chief Science Advisor, Dr. Alexander E. MacDonald, came up with the concept for SOS in 1995 using only a basic projector and a beach ball in his home garage. The first SOS was constructed in Boulder, CO at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in 2002. Now over a hundred SOS’s can be found at institutions all over the world, bringing over 11 million people a unique view of our planet’s natural and ever changing systems every year.

SOS1NOAA Headquarters, SOS under construction

So there I was, experiencing the power of SOS for the first time, completely mesmerized. The presenter started transitioning the display to a variety of different data sets, from sea-floor bathymetry and earthquake magnitudes to changing ocean temperatures and currents in motion. What we saw was so much more than pictures of our earth, but actual data and models changing over time, developed by scientists at NOAA and other institutions. Many of the data sets are continuously updated and can be viewed in real time!

We watched as Superstorm Sandy formed in the Atlantic, growing to its massive size before inundating the northeast coast of the US. We saw the fluctuating sea surface temperatures change with El Nino and Pacific Southern Oscillations. We detected continental boundaries with only the lights on Earth at night.

But we weren’t just there to watch. We were there to learn. Science On a Sphere® is an educational tool, and we were being instructed in the creation of SOS content and how to present it.  Thanks to technological advances, the entire SOS presentation can be run from an iPad app remote, and the different data sets are accessible through a shared network so that each presenter can pick and choose to create unique playlists for different audiences.

That’s really the most exciting thing about this.  There are so many different audiences our science will reach through this tool—children and adults alike visiting museums, zoos, and aquariums; students learning at various academic institutions; policy makers and government leaders visiting NOAA facilities to learn about how our research is critical—the potential reach of SOS is impressive.

SOS_aquariumSOS at the Aquarium of the Pacific

SOS_esrlSOS at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory

Science On a Sphere® is an amazing way to tackle the challenge of bridging the gap between scientific knowledge and public understanding.  As a science communicator in DC, data is useless unless the right people (policy and decision makers) can understand it and find ways to implement it for something useful.  Similarly, the science often needs to be something that the public perceives as important in order for it to gain more traction in a political agenda. This means our science must be delivered in both an exciting and easily understood way. With a shiny new Science On a Sphere® at our fingertips, I think it’s safe to say “challenge accepted.”

And then the instructor morphed the sphere into the Death Star. Sold.



One thought on “Science On a Sphere®: A Tale of Beach Balls and Star Wars

  1. Pingback: 2014 State of the Fellowship Address: We have joined the Knauss Mafia | Knauss in the House

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