Change happens wherever there’s life. Has there every been a place you’ve worked where you haven’t heard staff say in your first week, “You showed up right in the middle of a few big changes around here.” The truth is, everything is always right in the middle of change.
In the early days of Science On a Sphere the tiny community surrounding this nascent technology regarded data as an ostensibly holy category. Data, it seemed, was the raison d’etre for this smart, well-intentioned crowd.
That was the unified message I heard when I made my first visit to The Sphere and its talented attendants back in 2005. But not too long after I first visited the testing lab, I found myself wondering if what I was hearing and what I was thinking would ever become congruent.
The remarkable round screen invented at NOAA drew its genesis from a desire to present moving pictures of planetary data gathered by orbiting research satellites on an appropriately shaped screen. This data were not confined to Earth images either. Plenty of data sets describing other places in the solar system had prominent presentations on The Sphere. But with Earth as the most easily observed planet, the great bulk of NOAA’s sphere media library concerned pictures of our own blue and green gem.
When I saw The Sphere I marveled. There it was, hanging in darkness: a living planet. The Sphere itself was an expression of profound change, a transformation of flat video and cinema into a fully round surface. By itself it was a profound paradigm shift. The gracious, enthusiastic NOAA team cycled through a number of dramatic depictions, each built of extraordinary data, most of them compelling and some even spectacular. I remember walking all the way around the screen many times, entranced. Then I asked a question which in retrospect became my own moment of transformation.
“What does it do?”
Sometimes changes comes from a subtle reconsideration of everything you think you know. It’s the butterfly effect, the apocryphal flapping of tiny wings far away causing an atmospheric destabilization that results in a hurricane here.
My NOAA shepherd looked at me quizzically. He didn’t understand the question. The answer, suspended in front of us, should have been self evident.
I found myself equally perplexed. I could see how beautiful the images were. Gauzy clouds captured with infra-red satellite sensors skidded around the planet in one image. In another a kaleidoscopic undulation of color depicted various types of gasses in the atmosphere. Multicolored daubs of electronic paint described various types of land classification in yet another scene, a riot of color separated by the vast oceans holding land masses apart. Then, in a magical moment of visual palette-cleansing, my Sphere operators presented the grey poetry of the entire, silent moon, shining in the darkened theater like a magician’s spell.
The images were all beautiful in and of themselves, but a troublesome lack of satisfaction persisted. I felt like I was in a well stocked gourmet store with an impressive array of raw vegetables and cheeses and fish and breads and meats spread out for consideration and sale. Each delectable ingredient suggested huge opportunities for a kitchen, but by themselves they were simply elemental. They were raw.
My questions came home with me. Many months later, after sleepless nights and long jags of intense work, the world’s first spherical movie emerged, called FOOTPRINTS. After than, many things changed.
We could talk about the many roots of those changes, from the surprising resistance my film provoked, to the long, slow transformation in the community as people grew more comfortable with the idea to the gradual shift that began to seep into the small community as outsiders regarded the new style of expression with acclaim. Substantial evidence that an evolution in thinking had begun to invest itself emerged when, like all deep and lasting changes, others in the community began to experiment with these new modalities themselves.
Moments of transformation are always halls of mirrors. This is interesting to me because as a non-scientist I realize I’ll always be speaking a different language than the scientists and the educators who first developed the device. But I’m also aware that we’ve found ways to translate ourselves to each other, and in the process we’ve both learned a great deal from each other, too. I suspect there will always be a measure of nuance lost in translation, but we continue to get closer and closer in our dialects. The once-foreign language I initially presented has become more acceptable to the crowd, even if it’s still sometimes a challenging concept. Storytelling has rules just like science does. Gradually it’s less and less threatening. Gradually it has even become desirable, and for me, I can only offer profound appreciation for my continuing education about data visualization.
Change comes from a willingness to try something that doesn’t match what’s come before. When an iceberg calves from a glacier we see sudden transformation as tons of ice crash into the sea. But what we don’t necessarily see is the inexorable, relentless push of the glacier down to the sea, the long-term, root cause of the calving front. The thunderous change we observe is the sudden visibility of what’s really a deeper, longer, richer process.
Change comes to all things, from art, to science, to business practices, to civic discourse. It’s inevitable; it will happen no matter what. The trick is being able to harness that change, to hang on for the ride and perhaps offer a moment of influence to its trajectory. To demand that things always remain the same is to dismiss the great promise of our own collective futures. But to insist that all change automatically equals improvement is to deny the prodigious forces that led up to this moment. We can never forget the past just as we can never automatically adopt the future. The potential for greatness teeters in the tense balance between the two.