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Digital Globes, Childhood Whimsy, and a New Year

Buzz Poole
01/08/2013 - 06:51
Global Imagination digital globe, via The New York Times

Happy New Year, everyone! Hopefully you were able to enjoy some time off during the final weeks of 2012 and are refreshed for another spin through the Gregorian calendar. Of course, the Gregorian calendar is the standard international calendar that ticks off years every January 1, but it isn't the only calendar in use today. In Egypt, the Coptic calendar runs on thirteen months to a year; the Tamil calendar is a solar calendar; the Chinese calendar is a lunisolar calendar.

Thinking about how people all over the world still adhere to different ways to mark the passing of time got me thinking in big-picture terms here at the start of 2013. I'm the first to rail on about how technology makes the world feel smaller and smaller, but the grandeur of the planet, and the people who inhabit it, is made clear when you take the time to consider how, in many ways, people live differently from one another, and how those differences manifest in places and our understanding of those places.

So, with these lofty thoughts bouncing around my head, I was very happy to stumble across "Digital Globes Offer a Dynamic Vision" in this week's New York Times Science section. In elementary school I always liked to spin a globe and stop it at random, wondering about and imagining the hard-to-pronounce locations where my finger landed. According to this article, the days of these sorts of globes are coming to an end, thanks to digital globes. Such globes have been a staple of science museums for a while, but with costs coming down, they are making it into more and more classrooms and homes.

A digital globe, as Mark Vanhoenacker explains it in his Times article, "can animate complex phenomena, like the formation of weather systems, the effect of global warming on wolverine habitats or the annual pulse of sea ice. It can display the surface of the moon, the churning azure cloudscapes of Neptune or the celestial globe — the night sky." The more affordable of these sorts of globes use internal projectors and while a computer screen can show you all the same stuff, it can't show it to you and include the earth's curvature. Ideally, one day developers will perfect a spherical computer screen, but until then we'll just have to make due with projections.

Vanhoenacker discusses how digital globes can be about much more than geography, think "music visualizations, digital aquariums, geotagged vacation photos, real-time flight tracking of your spouse’s trip, Risk-style 'board' games." On the surface, it seems like this is just another digital tool that connects dots in the name of diminishing distances, but the idea of all this happening on a globe, which speaks to nostalgia for some of us and a scientific reality for all of us, makes it pretty awe inspiring.

As a kid I used to wonder how people at the bottom of the planet stood upright, because looking at a globe made it seem like they would be standing upside down. This is the whimsy of childhood, of course, but we should feel that from time to time as adults, and thinking about it in terms of the world is a great place to begin. Reading this article about digital globes evoked these thoughts and reminded me how much of the world I haven't seen and of how much I still want to see.

That's an exciting way to start a new year, no matter which calendar you use! 

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