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Traveling in Style : Et Cetera : Mapping The Real World

June 02, 1991|PAUL DEAN

No less staggering than the formation and proportions of Earth have been man's miserable attempts to portray it. Mercator's map bloated the land masses of the northern latitudes until Greenland appeared to be the same size as North America. In another projection, a patriotic Aussie switched hemispheres and put Down Under on top of the world.

Amid this confusion lurks the deficiency of cartographers: They drew the world. Except for Tom Van Sant. He has made the first photograph of the entire Earth.

Van Sant, 59, a Santa Monica artist, began his 18-month portrait with data collected by Tiros weather satellites from 520 miles up. In collaboration with experts from Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he then processed the trillions of numbers from space into super-computer images. The result was GeoSphere, a pinpoint, diamond-clear, electronic mosaic of the Earth and all its crannies. By the magic of computer enhancement, there is not a cloud in the global skies.

For technoids: The satellite information, computer charts and geographic tables were obtained from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and the CIA. The data were processed by a Stardent GS1000 super-graphics computer, with the final visualization containing well over 37 million pixels--the picture elements that built the final image.

For dreamers: The world according to Van Sant is a single scan of the entire globe and its seven seas along all latitudes. The view above is an astronaut's-eye view of the North Atlantic, although no orbiting spaceman ever held a view of the planet this clear. The colors of deserts, rain forests and inland seas are true. Details are finer than the naked eye can see, and the mighty Amazon is shown not as one river but the stem of a capillary system of the upper lobe of South America.

GeoSphere is a portrait of continents without borders and boundaries, a peaceful world that seems to belong to everyone. Even South Africa, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka and Iraq look calm.

The GeoSphere image will be sold as a poster. It has been formed into a seven-foot globe, and smaller worlds are planned for homes and schools.

Its database already has measured the toll man has taken on his world. GeoSphere displays the shrinking of Russian lakes and the depleted forests in Madagascar and Sarawak. "Yesterday's map makers were concerned mainly with geopolitical divisions," Van Sant says. "Now Earth sciences are an absolutely critical element of public policy.

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