This is something I've been thinking about for yonks now, ever since I had occasion to wander into our study at home and root out a World Globe that had been snoozing away at the back of a closet (see also Have you got the globes? No, I always walk this way!).
We get so used to looking at flat (2D) maps based on the Mercator Projection that we tend to forget just how much this distorts things in terms of area, scale, and shape. Take Africa, for example, which really doesn’t look all that large when presented on a regular map. “Why on earth did this take so long to explore?” we ask ourselves. It's only when you look at Africa on a 3D globe that you realize just how humongous a continent it truly is.
Have you seen maps showing the names and positions of the continents deep in the mists of time. Take the super continent Pangaea, for example. This existed during the late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic eras. It assembled from earlier continental units approximately 300 million years ago, and then it began to break apart about 175 million years ago.
In it's heyday, Pangaea, which was surrounded by the super ocean, Panthalassa, embraced what eventually became Eurasia, North America, South America, Africa, India, Australia, and Antartica. I've only ever seen Pangaea presented on a 2D map — I'd love to see it displayed on a 3D globe.
The problem is that this would still be a static representation. I'd also love to see an animation of the way Pangaea evolved over time presented on a 3D globe display. All of this led me to contemplate creating some sort of spherical display system. This would start as a blank canvas upon which you could display anything your heart desired.
In fact, various implementations of these little scamps are available today, like the one known as Science On a Sphere (SOS), which is described as: “A room-sized, global display system that uses computers and video projectors to display planetary data onto a six foot diameter sphere, analogous to a giant animated globe.”
As we can see in the image above, this is really, really tasty. I would love to have one of these little rascals to play with, but I'm not a complete idiot (my mother had me tested) and I do appreciate that something like this would be way too large and far too expensive for home use.
Still-and-all, as they say, I really would like something like this of my very own. I'd be happy with something as small as 18″ diameter, but I'd be bouncing off the walls with excitement if I had access to a 36″ diameter beauty.
So, what could we do with such a display? Well, let's start by imagining how we might present the world the way it is today. We could start with a regular display of countries with cities and borders and suchlike, and then switch to a view showing the topology and flora like mountains and forests and stuff.
It would also be nice to be able to make the oceans (and big lakes) go sort of transparent, so you could see the underwater terrain like mountains and canyons. It would also be interesting to be able to make the water disappear altogether.
How about the ability to display the locations and types of known natural resources, such as coal and oil and rare-earths and suchlike? Again, rather than simply “painting” these on the surface, you could make the display look as though the earth were sort of transparent as though you were seeing these resources under the ground.
Then there are things like the tectonic plates and the volcanoes forming the Pacific Ring of Fire. And, once again, in addition to static images, we can also display animations and videos of all sorts of things. Returning to the super continent Pangaea, we could display its evolution and subsequent devolution over time. We could also opt to superimpose information like today's country boarders and/or city locations onto these ancient landmasses, so we could see where New York City would have been 250 million years ago, for example, and how this location has migrated around the surface of the earth.
Another thing that has long interested me is the fact that it is now believed the Mediterranean basin has dried up and then re-flooded multiple times over the course of millions of years. I believe the most recent occurrence came somewhere around 10,000 years ago to coincide with the end of the last ice age (which may account for stories of a “Great Flood”). Can you imagine going back in time — perhaps in a helicopter — and watching this event take place? The next best thing would be to take something like this animation and preset a high-resolution version on our “mega-sphere”:
What about displaying the progression of ice during the ice ages? I believe that at the height of the most recent ice age, the glaciers came down as far as New York City and were about 1 mile high (wow!). Also, so much water was locked in the ice that the ocean levels fell to such an extent tha tit was possible to walk from (what we now know as) France to England and from England to Ireland. Using our display, we could present animations of things like the Gulf Stream and other ocean currents. Also the rise and fall of sea levels, both in the past and projected into the future.
We could also display things like how the temperate and desert bands have moved “up and down” the globe over time. For example, I believe that Egypt was a tropical jungle paradise somewhere around 7,000 to 10,000 years ago.
How about showing the impact sites of meteorites, including animations of the ensuing fire and dust and smoke storms, such as the one that took out most of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago?
Another good one would be to display animations of animal migrations over time, such as the spread of the dinosaurs followed by the spread of mammals and marsupials, for example. Similarly, we could present human migrations over the ages. (As an aside, I'm currently promoting my own “Out of England” theory, which is based on the premise that anatomically modern humans originated in what is now known as the English county of South Yorkshire. The fact that this is where I was born is purely coincidental.)
Further to the last point, it would be interesting to see animations of things like the growth of human populations over time (we are now at 7 billion people) with projections into the future. We could also add in information like water availability, per-capita income, and all sorts of other data. Or what about using our display to present high-resolution versions of something like this animation, which depicts a political view of the world over the preceding 200 years?
How about being able to depict the spread of new strains of flu and other viruses? I tell you, I could go on and on and on waffling about things like showing the daylight and nighttime zones at the current time, or real-time weather displays, including lightning strikes and tornadoes, along with the Jet Stream and the paths of things like cyclones, hurricanes, and typhoons (or whatever you want to call them).
How about showing animations of things like the paths of famous voyages, such as Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki Expedition? Or what about showing an animation of the voyage of the Titanic, including the locations of other vessels in the area? And for people interested in things like WWII, for example, it would be possible to depict the way in which various armies and navies moved around and held sway over different portions of the globe.
And we don’t have to restrict ourselves to displaying only views of the Earth. We could also use our globe to show representations of our moon, the other planets and moons in our solar system, our sun and other suns, exo-planets, and… the list goes on.
Of course, we'd need a 21st Century control system to match all of this. Suppose you were to bring your hand near to a portion of the globe and then spread your thumb and fingers in a similar manner to the “zoom” gesture you use on an iPad. Now imagine the portion of the globe under your fingers giving you a zoomed-in view of the area underneath.
The effect I'm visualizing is that of a “magnifying glass” representation appearing on the surface of the sphere, centered on the area under your hand where you made the original gesture. The “zoom” effect would take place inside this area. The zoomed in area would be distortion-free, except maybe around the very edges where we could introduce some artificial distortion to reinforce the magnifying glass manifestation.
Ideally, you would be able to repeatedly zoom in as much as you desired, down to the level of fields and buildings and cars and suchlike. This would be similar to using Google Earth (you could use the data from Google Earth, or you could use simulated / computer-generated imagery), except that the area outside the magnifying glass would remain at its original resolution. Using appropriate gestures, you would be able to rotate the display while leaving the magnifying glass “as-is,” or you could move the magnifying glass around the display while leaving the main body of the display “as-is.”
Are you as excited by this concept as am I? Please share your ideas for possible applications and implementations with the rest of us as comments below.