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Pondering “Science on a Sphere”: Fire and the Singer of Tales

In his July 2018 letter, MSU Museum director Mark Auslander considers plans to bring the powerful learning technology, “Science on a Sphere”, to the Museum, with a projected grand opening in October 2019. Although the system draws upon some of the most sophisticated scientific research and computational analysis of the modern era, Auslander suggests that the profound appeal of “Science on a Sphere” has ancient roots, perhaps stretching back even earlier than our emergence as a species.

Picture four projectors illuminating a hanging six foot globe, projecting a spectacular array of complex datasets, illustrating geophysical, environmental, and cultural Image of Science On a Sphere at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicagophenomena in planetary perspective.

Viewed in a darkened room, one has the illusion of watching our spinning earth, our tiny “blue marble,” from outer space. With one touch the image instantly transforms into the rotating sphere of Mars, or Jupiter, or a distant Red Giant star, or even, potentially, the interior of a uranium atom or a biological cell.

“Science on a Sphere”, or “SoS” for short, was developed by scientists and science educators at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) into a remarkably powerful learning technology, now on display at over 150 locations around the world.

SoS can show a wide range of environmental, historical and social phenomena as well, including sea turtle migration routes, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and live-stream occurrences of political protest the world over.

We now have an excellent chance of bringing this amazing technology to MSU, thanks to the MSU Federal Credit Union’s generous challenge gift of $150,000.

SoS is especially important because it conveys, in accessible, visual form, patterns that otherwise are hidden in enormously complex, difficult-to-understand data sets, gathered from thousands of advanced technological sensors on Earth and in orbit. My former student Bryce Peake tells me that he and his fellow data scientists have started to refer to vast conglomerations of data, some of them generated and re-processed through automated bots, as “data lakes.” As with a lake, we can see the surface but are uncertain what lies in its depths. “Science on a Sphere” helps, in effect, to bring the hidden mysteries of data lakes up to the surface, so we can grasp underlying patterns amidst seeming chaos.

For many years, I have been dazzled by the “Science on a Sphere” installations I have seen at museums, science centers, and zoos. Visitors of all ages stop and gaze in wonder, as we gather around this illuminated ball and watch its flickering, spinning images tell us stories about our world and about worlds beyond.

An Ancient Model

Why do millions of viewers find SoS so deeply compelling? Its datasets are easily available on line. They can, in principle, be watched on flat screens, but that turns out to be pretty dull. Nothing quite compares to experiencing a real live “Science on a Sphere” globe in three dimensions in a darkened gallery, as it seems to rotate on its axis in front of our eyes, amidst a marvel of color and shifting light.

As an anthropologist I suspect the near universal appeal of an actual SoS globe is anchored in the way it simulates one of the oldest of human experiences, being gathered around the fire and staring into the flickering flames. Recent paleo-archaeological evidence suggests that our ancestors, Homo erectus, first achieved substantial control over fire around one million years ago. Mastering fire deeply altered the evolutionary trajectory of our ancestral line, transforming our diet and allowing us to adapt to a wide range of environments, setting us on the pathway that would lead to the emergence of our own species, Homo sapiens, and our successful dispersal into every biome of planet Earth. A band or clan gathered at night around a fire pit would have received warmth and protection from dangerous predators and been bound together by the wondrous spectacle of leaping flames illuminating people’s faces, set against the surrounding darkness.

During my fieldwork in an isolated Ngoni community in eastern Zambia, in rural south-central Africa, I came to love the nights when families would gather around an open fire. Here, elders would recount, in song and in speech, often embedded in interludes of dance, stories of ancient wisdom, sharing tales of creation, heroism on the hunt, ingenious discovery while gathering plants, and tragicomic accounts of ancient human foolishness, frailty, perseverance, and resilience. All eyes were on the raging fire, and on the delicate, burning embers floating upwards towards the distant stars. Across thousands of human generations, knowledge has been passed down from old to young, while our ancestors gathered in a grand circle around the fire, the original theater in the round.

Fire Stories

Around the fire, the shaman, bard, and teller of tales held listeners spellbound, through storytelling that lifted each person out of her or his individual frame of reference into the grand, flowing river of collective experience and shared knowledge. To this day, in diverse faiths and spiritual traditions around the world, fire and wisdom are closely bound together: burning flames not only cast physical light, but bring illumination of all sorts, cleansing the soul and elevating the mind.

In its full three-dimensional glory, “Science on a Sphere” recreates this shared, primal experience of being human, of seeking enlightenment in a circle around a flickering light source, gathered together in the presence of others. This spectacle calls forth our deeply human desire to create new stories, to be, in the words of Albert Lord, a “singer of tales.” At the Museum, we are especially excited about the prospect that college students, faculty, schoolchildren, and community members will learn how to author new presentations for our SoS globe, creating digital animated visualizations about science and culture. Through this co-created content, they will pass on to generations that follow ever-deepening insights into the universe and our place within it.

Mysteries of Interpretation

Pondering “Science on a Sphere”, our hyper-modern ball of fire, and the stories we might create around it, I am reminded of a long running debate about one particular ancient tale of fire. For millennia, theologians have argued over the enigmatic biblical passage, 1 Kings:18 in the Old Testament. The prophet Elijah struggles with the apostles of the god Baal, challenging them to call down fire on a sacrificial offering. When they fail to do so, Elijah prays to Yahweh, fire falls down from above, and the altar bursts into flames. The former worshipers of Baal kneel and proclaim that Yahweh is great.

In the Jewish tradition, this passage proved troublesome for generations of thinkers. Why, innumerable rabbis asked, should the Lord of Abraham need mere physical proof to demonstrate His power, and what is so miraculous about starting a fire anyway? An ingenious Hasidic scholar finally proposed that the real miracle was not the fire itself: any half-decent divinity, after all, could presumably bring down physical flames. The real miracle was that when Elijah prayed and the altar burst into flames, the people did not declare, “Elijah is great,” instead they declared, “The Lord is great.”

The real miracle, in other words, is one of interpretation. What matters, at the end of the day, is the stories we tell about what we see within the flames and about our larger world. Our common stories are what bind us together and propel us towards the next stages in the development of mind and society.

When it arrives at the Museum in October 2019, my hope is our new “Science on a Sphere” will similarly inspire each and every one of us to become a singer of tales, to engage in our own acts of interpretation, debate, and exploration. Gathered around our digital fire in a darkened gallery, let us together create new stories, new quests for knowledge and discovery—as we plumb the depths of our ever-growing data lakes and illuminate our way forward into uncharted realms.

NOTE: Bringing “Science on a Sphere” to the MSU Museum will require assistance from Museum supporters, matching the generous challenge gift from MSUFCU. The Museum needs $100,000 to renovate Heritage Gallery and create a state-of-the-art control room for the SoS computer servers. Your support at (https://www.museum.msu.edu/giving/) is a gift to our wider community and to future generations of learners, inspiring people of every age to discover more about our changing planet and humanity’s past and future.

Listen to WKAR’S Scott Pohl talk with MSU Museum Director Mark Auslander about “Science on a Sphere”.