from Stormchasers to Journey into the Living Cell
By Paul Oles
Monsoons . . . hurricanes . . . tornadoes . . .these words call to mind flooding,
devastation and the powerful forces of nature. Where do these storms occur? Why do
they develop? Will we ever be able to accurately forecast their paths of destruction?
The United States is the tornado capital of the world. More of these storms
occur in the sprawling plains of the central regions of our country than in any other
part of the world. It is here that cold, dry air masses from the Canadian prairies
plow under warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico. In the uplift zone, called a cold
front, intense thunderstorms can develop. These storms produce winds in excess of
55 mph, hail larger than one-half inch in diameter and, occasionally, tornadoes.
exact reason why some severe thunderstorms produce tornadoes and other do not is not
well understood. In an attempt to uncover the mystery, expert meteorologists have
formed teams to outrace severe thunderstorms as they develop and place themselves
in their paths in order to be present when tornadoes develop. Called "stormchasers,"
these scientists are providing direct information on the atmospheric conditions that
are necessary in a thunderstorm for tornadic development to occur.
as a tornado is, the monsoon is the most encompassing of all storm systems. No other
weather feature has a larger impact than the annual monsoon of southeastern Asia and
Africa. In this region of the world, more than two billion people rely on the monsoon
rains for their drinking water and food. When a monsoon bypassed parts of China in
1877 the resulting crop failure claimed more than ten million lives.
United States, constantly shifting "high" and "low" pressure systems
cause winds to change their direction almost daily, but in southeastern Asia and Africa,
winds blow from only one of two prevailing directions, depending on the season. The
word "monsoon," in fact, comes from the Arabic "mausim," which
means "seasons." Monsoons occur where seasonal reversals in prevailing winds
cause relatively dry winters and wet summers. In India, for example, winter brings
prevailing north to northeast winds which descend the slopes of the Himalayas and
are dried and warmed in the process. This dry air produces clear skies and little
During summer in India, the wind shifts to south and southwest, bringing
moisture-laden air from the Indian Ocean northward across the country toward the mountains.
The humid air rises, cools and condenses, producing heavy rains which account for
80 percent of India's average annual precipitation. In fact, a world record for rainfall
was set in Cherrapunji, India, in the Himalayan foothills, where 86.8 feet of rain
fell between August 1, 1860, and July 31, 1861. To put this incredible statistic into
perspective, Pittsburgh's average annual liquid precipitation is about 36.8 inches!
While climatologists explore reasons for the annual variability of monsoons,
other "stormchasers" focus their attention on the tropical cyclone. Known
by a variety of names, including hurricane and typhoon, depending on the region where
they form, tropical cyclones, when viewed from space, appear as majestic spirals of
clouds spanning hundreds of miles. Their beauty when seen from a distance belies their
Tropical cyclones are birthed just to the north and south
of our planet's equator during the late summer and fall, when ocean temperatures exceed
80 degrees Fahrenheit. These great storms derive their strength from the energy released
as vapor from evaporating ocean water rises, cools and changes to vapor again, forming
clouds. The clouds formed through this process--which meteorologists call "latent
heat transfer"-- build upward into enormous thunderheads that reach altitudes
of almost 50,000 feet.
This area of rising air at the ocean's surface causes
winds to begin to converge and, as they do, spin counterclockwise in response to forces
generated by the Earth's rotation. If the inward-spiraling wind reaches a velocity
of 40 mph, the newly formed "tropical storm" is given a name from a predetermined
list. If winds reach 74 mph, the tropical storm is called a hurricane or typhoon.
During 1995 there were 18 named tropical storms or hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean--second
only to 1933, when 21 tropical systems developed.
While many people are aware
of the devastation caused by tropical cyclones, few realize that these great storm
systems serve an essential purpose. In the equatorial regions, our planet absorbs
far more energy during the day than it releases at night. In the mid-temperature and
polar areas, our planet releases far more energy at night than it absorbs during the
day. This annual disparity causes an enormous heat imbalance between the equatorial
and polar regions of Earth.
Nature has developed several important mechanisms
for solving this problem, one of the most important of which is the tropical cyclone.
Serving as "heat sponges" these storms absorb energy from the warm tropical
oceans and eventually travel northward toward the poles where they dissipate, releasing
their stored heat energy. In doing so, tropical cyclones help relieve the imbalance.
While monsoons and tropical cyclones serve some beneficial purposes, the same
cannot be said for tornadoes, which undoubtedly contain the strongest winds observed
on the surface of our planet. Intense tornadoes can contain winds in excess of 300
mph, resulting in extreme damage.
Monsoons and tropical cyclones are large-scale
features, oftentimes covering thousands of square miles. In sharp contrast, tornadoes
are small-scale features that develop as parts of severe thunderstorms. As our planet's
human population continues to increase geometrically, more people are living in regions
where they are likely to encounter the devastating impact of an intense monsoon, tropical
cyclone or tornado. Since the beginning of the decade, insurance claims in the United
States due to weather calamities, such as hurricanes Hugo, Andrew and Opal, have amounted
to tens of billions of dollars, greater than all of the previous decades of this century
combined. The demand for more accurate weather warnings will increase and so will
the need for "stormchasers"--scientists willing to brave the dangers of
these storms to increase our understanding of Earth's volatile atmosphere.
Into the Living Cell
Science Center audiences can now explore the amazing
order and beauty of the universe seen by the cellular biologist in Journey into the
Living Cell, the new production created for the Henry Buhl, Jr. Planetarium.
the words of the program, "They are as numerous as grains of sand on a beach;
as curious, as varied and as alien from one another as creatures in a science fiction
film. Yet we know today that each of the millions upon millions of forms that life
takes on our planet is a mask concealing a deeper kinship--a pattern woven from a
common thread that unites all life on Earth. That thread--the tie that binds life
to life-- is spun by machinery as old as life itself, in a process which has continued,
uninterrupted, for nearly 400 million years. It is the . . . living cell."
journey is preceded by a discussion of scale using a relative size chart comparing
a galaxy, a planet, a human being, an organelle, a protein molecule, a DNA molecule
and an atom. Next the planetarium dome is transformed into an innerspacecraft of the
imagination, a microprobe that transports the viewer to the cell's nucleus. Viewers
begin their actual journey from the outside edge of the cell membrane to the nucleus,
stopping enroute at a variety of organelles or internal components of the cell. All
audiences have a common starting point and conclusion, but the journey from cell component
to cell component depends on the interactive choices of each particular audience.
The New Technology of Exploration
These wonders of the microcosmic
world of cell biology can now be seen clearly because of technological advances in
the planetarium environment.
Just as the invention of the telescope changed
astronomy, so did the invention of the microscope give us the power to see the cell
for the first time. The evolution of the microscope over the last 300 years has had
a revolutionary impact on our understanding of cellular biology. In the words of the
program, "Technology has pushed our vision to the absolute limits of sight. Instruments
such as the automated integrated microscope show us, not just dead cells on a slide,
but the actual workings of living cells."
What viewers at the Henry Buhl,
Jr. Planetarium see is the result of 18 months of collaboration between the planetarium
and two departments of Carnegie Mellon University: the Studio for Creative Inquiry,
and the Center for Light Microscope Imaging and Biotechnology. Funding was provided
by the largest grant ever given by the National Science Foundation for the production
of a planetarium program, with additional local support from the Buhl Foundation.
To simulate a trip through the living cell the computer graphics capabilities
of the planetarium's enhanced Digistar II projection system (installed in September
1995 and supported in part through a grant from the Emma Clyde Hodge Memorial Fund)
are united with video and formatted images generated at CMU's Center for Light Microscope
Imaging and Biotechnology.
One attractive goal of this project for the National
Science Foundation was enhancing the learning experience about science by transforming
the Henry Buhl, Jr. Planetarium into a new visualization environment . . . a "group,
interactive, immersive environment," or "GIVE."
of virtual reality are united in GIVE to create a highly advanced simulation of the
cell's environment. Viewers see three- dimensional projection, and can control the
images and interact with them. The projected images utilize Chroma-Depth technology--which
permits the 3-D display of images on the planetarium dome, and uses the colors of
the visible spectrum from red through violet. When viewed through special glasses,
images projected in red appear nearest and those in violet appear farthest away. The
producers were thus able to create a sensation of depth in the biological images,
and show the living cell in 3-D.
With GIVE the audience exerts real-time control
over the images by using an ingenious system developed by CINEMATRIX, Inc. This is
a new form of interactive entertainment technology developed by Lorin Carpenter, who
created computer software to enable Hollywood film producers to generate elaborate
special effects such as those in the film Jurassic Park. The system has been featured
at the annual prestigious SIGGRAPH Conference, on Nickelodeon national television
and at public festivals and conferences throughout the world. Carpenter received an
Academy Award for technical achievement in 1992 for his accomplishment. In 1994 The
Carnegie Science Center and Carnegie Mellon University entered into an exclusive agreement
with Carpenter to research the system for application by the Henry Buhl, Jr. Planetarium
in Journey into the Living Cell.
During the spring of 1995, CMU's Computer
Science Department offered a graduate class in developing educational applications
of the system, and, in the autumn, the project research team designed an infrared
camera, a technological breakthrough that allowed the CINEMATRIX system to be used
in a normally dark planetarium environment.
The new interactive technology
uses a Silicon Graphics computer system and camera to assign each audience seat a
specific address. Audience members use simple reflective foam paddles to register
their response on the system. Unlike the push-button interactive technology currently
in use in the planetarium, CINEMATRIX allows continuous real-time control of projected
video images by members of the planetarium audience.
To control the pathway
of their trip through the cell, viewers move an index on a scale to estimate the relative
size of a cell, control the inflow and outflow of chemicals through a cell membrane,
and control the energy generated before the onset of cell division. In the last case
the planetarium audience will be divided into two groups with each controlling a particular
chemical used in the energy reaction sequence.
To understand the intricate
structure of a living cell, the Journey program uses the analogy of the cell as a
city in miniature. The planetarium's Digistar II projection system creates its famous
3-D Pittsburgh skyline and then inserts appropriate cell components on cue.
visual analogy compares the cell's "cytoskeleton," an intricate arrangement
of minute filaments and tubes which work together like a conveyor system to move essential
materials from one part of the cell to another, with the city's network of roads.
It relates the "lysosome" to a city's recycling and purification plant;
the "endoplasmic reticulum," or ER, where raw materials are converted into
proteins, to a sprawling manufacturing complex; and "Golgi bodies," where
proteins are packaged and assigned their unique destinations, to city post offices.
"Mitochondria," where chemical fuel is converted into energy, are matched
to a city's power plant. Finally, the cell nucleus, where the complete genetic history
of the cell is kept on file, is compared with the administrative center of town.
matter what route the planetarium audience takes to get there, the trip ends inside
the cell's nucleus as we explore the genetic information contained in DNA and watch
the process of mitosis or division, a complex ballet of material that culminates in
the birth of two new cells.
After its premier at the Carnegie Science Center,
Journey into the Living Cell will be available to planetariums worldwide. A Teacher
Resource Guide, designed to carry components of the program into the classroom, has
been prepared in collaboration with Duquesne University's School of Education and
is available to educators making group reservations to attend the program. Journey
into the Living Cell advances the planetarium experience to new heights of technological
sophistication, but its greatest success is in focusing attention on the most complex
and mysterious wonder in all of the universe . . . life itself.
is assistant director for the OMNIMAX, Planetarium, Observatory, and Weather Service
at the Carnegie Science Center.
Journey into the Living Cell, the world's
first application of virtual reality technology for a group setting in a planetarium,
presented daily through 1996 at the Henry Buhl, Jr. Planetarium. Produced by the Carnegie
Science Center and Carnegie Mellon University with the support of the National Science
Foundation and the Buhl Foundation. Call 237-3400 for information. Stormchasers, a
new large-screen format film presented daily through June 13, 1996, in Carnegie Science
Center's Rangos OMNIMAX Theater. Produced for The Museum Film Network and NOVA/WGBH-TV,
Boston, by MacGillivray Freeman Films Distribution Company. Call 237-3400 for information.