Airplane Picture

Macrocosm to Microcosm:
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.

The 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 devastating 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.

In the 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 rain.

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 extreme violence.

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.

Journey 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.

In 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."

The 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."

Several features 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.

The 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.

No 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.

Paul Oles 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.