2008 Science, Technology and Environment

Alexander E. MacDonald

Invented Science on a Sphere®, a teaching tool that displays environmental data on a globe-like screen and makes Earth-system science more exciting and accessible.

Dr. Alexander “Sandy” MacDonald said the idea hit him on a drive home from work at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): the Earth isn’t flat, so why should maps of its environment be? Next thing you know he’s painting a beach ball and setting up a system of slide projectors in his garage. This at-home science fair project would evolve into Science on a Sphere, a revolutionary teaching tool that is making Earth-system science more exciting and accessible.

Science on a Sphere vividly displays environmental data on a globe-like screen, making it easier than ever for people to visualize and understand changes to our atmosphere and the oceans. It looks like something from a science-fiction movie, with a floating globe in the middle of a room, but the information projected on this state-of-the-art canvas and its practical uses are very real.

Science on a Sphere can show what Earth looks like from space and lets audiences see pollution trends, global cloud imagery, hurricane patterns, ocean temperatures and currents, plate tectonics, and even the lights produced by cities and wildfires.

These images are generated by high-tech equipment that assembles real satellite images of our environment and projects them onto a spinning globe-like screen. In some models, the globe appears to rotate, and in others, the natural phenomena appear to move. The programs can be set up into “playlists” like an MP3 player to form a presentation for educators, museums, and scientists.

Dr. MacDonald said he hopes his invention will help educate Americans about the planet, especially the challenges it faces with global climate change. “A big part of what I wanted on the Science on a Sphere is to show people what is happening on Earth,” MacDonald said. “This is the most effective way to demonstrate the global crisis.”

Dr. MacDonald’s invention has proved useful for two key audiences. It is widely used to inform influential decision makers about environmental and scientific policy, including serving as the main exhibit at a 2004 G-8 Summit in Sea Island, Georgia, where leaders of the world’s most powerful countries convened. It has also been used to provide briefings for members of Congress.

Science on a Sphere is also a hit with the general public. More than 27 installations will be operating worldwide by the end of 2008, including popular science museums in Orlando, Chicago, Salt Lake City and Seattle, as well as the new Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum. An estimated 5 million people will see these displays this year, and Dr. MacDonald is working with private companies to bring portable versions of Science on a Sphere into classrooms so even more people get a chance to interact with it.

There is no question that climate change is one of the great challenges confronting our nation. America’s ability to inspire and develop enough new scientists and engineers to help us maintain our competitive edge in the global economy will be another. Dr. Alexander’s Science on a Sphere addresses both. It illustrates the climate change problem like nothing before it and in a way that compels people to take action. At the same time, it sparks the imagination of young people and reminds them that science can be fun. If seeing Science on a Sphere in a museum or in their school can excite children and push them along the path to study science, decades from now, these young people might be in their garages making discoveries of their own.