Marie Drake Planetarium

Where the stars always shine in Juneau, Alaska

Science on a Sphere

 "Science on a Sphere" is a room-size exhibit featuring a six-foot diameter suspended globe upon which can be projected various kinds of information about the Earth and solar system.

It is not a planetarium project. However, planetarium volunteers have given presentations using the sphere
 5/1/2009 -Juneau Empire Article - Science on a sphere" opens at state museum

The Alaska State Museum has announced a new addition to its first floor exhibition galleries. Titled "Science on  Sphere" (SOS), the dramatic, room-sized exhibit features a six-foot diameter suspended globe upon which can be projected various kinds of information about the Earth and solar system. The effect is a full-color model of planet Earth in a darkened room.

The project was developed and is being funded by a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

From a life-like representation of the view of Earth from space to infrared satellite data that track storms and hurricanes, the display provides opportunities for audiences of all ages to learn about weather, oceans, global warming and other environmental changes. SOS is also able to show animated images of the moon, the sun and the planets. In cooperation with NOAA, the museum will continue to develop presentations related to the environment of the north and to Alaska in particular.

The museum will open the exhibit to the public Juneau Museum Day, May 16.

Juneau Empire by Pat Forgey

Bob Banghart of Juneau named chief curator of the Alaska State Museum.

.. . the museum system has expanded its artistic and scientific reach by forming partnerships with institutions such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of Alaska and the Juneau School  District.

For example, at the system's Juneau museum, a 6-foot-diameter sphere donated by NOAA presents scientific information about the Earth and solar system. The Science on a Sphere exhibit uses computers and video projectors to display planetary data about the atmosphere, climate and the oceans.

"The sphere gives us a new method for orientation, putting Alaska into a circumpolar perspective for visitors,"  Banghart said.

The sphere also can be used to explore the geologic conditions that made for the peopling of Alaska, tying into Alaska Native oral history.

August 6, 2009
Juneau Empire by Abby Lowell

Learning in 360 degrees. Picture for a minute, what it might be like to study global weather patterns from the moon's point of view. Imagine watching the weather systems roll across the Pacific Ocean, or swirl in the Gulf of Mexico. What if you could watch and speed up the expansion and recession of the polar ice caps in order to study the past and potential effects of global climate change? Complicated explanations would be nonexistent. Visuals would show the facts simply and  clearly.

This is the power of a new exhibit at the Alaska State Museum - one of only 38 others in the nation. It's called Science on a Sphere and according to Bob Banghart, curator of exhibitions at the museum, the possibilities for its use in Alaska as a teaching tool are nearly boundless and it opens doors to illustrating regional events and issues in a completely unique way.

Plus, it's pretty cool.

Simply mesmerizing

Perhaps what's most intriguing about the sphere is the impact it has on visitors young and old.

Sarah Lee, museum protection and visitor services assistant, sees reactions from museum guests daily.

"'Wow' is what they say first," she said. "Then often though, they're almost speechless. It's almost like their mesmerized."

Lee likened the sphere to an aquarium. A restful space with a natural rhythm.

"You become like you're sitting on the moon looking at the Earth," Banghart said. "It's a very peaceful place."

The staff has the ability to rotate through different programs. Lee said some of the most popular are the weather and daylight/night images. Banghart mentioned one program they call the "blue marble," which is the classic earth-from-space image. Projected on the sphere, it rotates slowly.

"Many of the images are beautiful." Lee said. "Our planet is beautiful. I think it imparts that appreciation. Whether or not someone engages in our talks, they're taking it in and appreciating this world that we live in."

She said that one person in particular may have found a unique appreciation for what the sphere can do.

Quinn White, 12, has become a summer volunteer docent at the museum. His affinity for the sphere began during an end-of-the-year field trip with his class.

Lee said White was particularly inquisitive and intelligent.

"He's an extremely bright young man. He knows more about astronomy than I do," Lee said.

White now gives guided tours of only the sphere and Lee said he has become quite adept.

"He doesn't even shy away from climate change (questions)," she said. "He comes out with the most professional sounding answers to hard questions."

Teaching tool

But when it comes to education, the sphere can have a profound, powerful and lasting impact, according to Banghart.

Take the Interior village of Newtok, for example, he said. This village is being relocated due to rising sea levels.

"Global projections of sea levels over decades could illustrate, on a global scale, what people are experiencing right now," he said.

The people in this western Alaska village are seeking higher ground as erosion has turned their community into a sinking island.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

Four digital video projectors display images processed and combined by five different computers onto a six-foot carbon fiber sphere to produce color, dynamic, animated and interactive images of the Earth's atmosphere, oceans, animal migration patterns, global warming trends, hurricane paths, aviation flight patterns and fisheries around the globe - just to name a few.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries funded the purchase of the sphere as part of the museum's and NOAA's educational enhancement partnership. NOAA serves as the principal governing agency studying and monitoring many of the global systems displayed on the sphere.

Banghart said programs already have been commissioned that are specific to the museum's mission, which aims to spread knowledge of Alaska, its people and its resources.

Local schools are already on board for use of the sphere.

"We're already working with the schools and the university," Banghart said.

John Oliver, deputy assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries, said "people come to the Alaska State Museum in Juneau to learn about Alaska's natural history, human history and art. With Science on a Sphere, they can see Alaskan weather, oceans, fisheries, flight paths, and animal migration patterns in relation to the rest of the globe
through time."

Going local

"The potential exists to come to a visual artist and say 'here, here's a 360 degree visual platform, what can you do with it?'" Banghart said.

Opportunities for use of the sphere with the visual arts is certainly intriguing, and when it comes to local artists and scientists, there are plenty who are interested.

Videographers, photographers and astronomers have all shown interest.

From displaying panoramic art from Ron Klein, to locally produced movies from Pat Race and the Jump Society crew, Banghart admits he's not quite sure what the limitations might be.

"We need to learn more about it, its potential, but there's already been some experimentation," he said.

Members of the Jump Society have put together a few programs. One illustrates the size of Alaska compared to other nations and continents around the world.

And whether it's Folk Festival, Celebration or a clan meeting, Banghart said the sphere is important because "it
gives us an opportunity to show (something) in a different form - a pure novelty - or something more significant.

A second Juneau sphere, also open to public viewing, is installed at NOAA's Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute at Lena Point. The Lena Point sphere is where NOAA Fisheries computer and data experts in Juneau try out new fisheries data sets that are used to convey and contextualize fisheries information from across the globe.