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Sunday Profile : A Global Vision : In the latest phase of his GeoSphere Project, Tom Van Sant envisions a computer accessible library where a fragile planet's workings come to life.


Popeye the sheep dog snores right through his master's most impassioned speech.

Holding forth in his headquarters in a converted, tumbledown Santa Monica fish restaurant, Tom Van Sant is explaining to a young man from a high-tech company how his computer technology will someday help policymakers better manage the Earth's resources.

Take the debate over chopping down virgin timber in the Northwest. It's a mistake, Van Sant argues, to reduce the discussion to owls versus jobs. Instead, business and government should weigh quick profits against the long-term loss of natural resources. To do that, he says, they've got to move beyond political rhetoric.

"Words all just go back and forth," Van Sant says. "This project is fundamentally conceived as a means of getting past [that]."

He is talking about the GeoSphere Project, his six-year effort to produce an easily accessible, scientifically accurate, interactive portrait of the Earth. His idea--the latest in a series of unusual experiments mixing art and science--is to give anyone with a computer modem the chance to visualize "fundamental facts" about the environment. Obscure but important facts, he notes, that now rarely circulate beyond the scientific community.

At the core of the project is a database in progress called the Global Visual Library. With a few clicks of the mouse, a user in a specially equipped room can tap into a graphic showing changes, for example, in the size of the African chimpanzee population. By overlaying pictures of deforestation in the same time period, the user can form a hypothesis: Chopping down trees has contributed to a decline in the number of chimps. Or perhaps someone wants to know what role weather patterns have had in shaping the cultures of nomadic peoples. Or how ice floes migrate.

Van Sant's vision for the library embodies a great leap of faith: If real people can see the Earth's condition unfold before their eyes, they can better react to such threats as overpopulation, ozone depletion and global warming. So far, his support group includes astronauts, scientists, the Smithsonian Institution and Vice President Al Gore, among other policymakers. NASA gave $50,000 in seed money.

"I think it's a very exciting and useful way to help people," says Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), a fan of the project. "I'd much rather have the people pushing Congress as a consequence of the people knowing more than the Congress knows."

Van Sant puts it more succinctly: "Instead of being victims of history . . . we [can] gain back our power."


Despite the slumbering sheep dog, the floor paved in AstroTurf and the furniture patched with green duct tape, the GeoSphere headquarters gives off the vibe of a military nerve center. Half a dozen workers are spread out around the large main room, speaking on the phone in hushed voices, manning the computers.

Van Sant meets guests at a polished wooden table positioned near a gigantic globe. This imposing Earth is one of the project's early accomplishments. Like Van Sant himself, it is as much about art as it is science.

Now 64, he got to this place in his life by way of Beverly Hills, where he grew up under the roof of a hard-working insurance salesman and a homemaker. Then came stints as a Marine in the Korean War and as a student at Stanford University and the Otis College of Art and Design. A fascination with line drawings and watercolors expanded into murals, architectural design and urban planning. By the 1970s, Van Sant was the lead architectural and art planner for the downtown Bunker Hill redevelopment project.

A favorite diversion of the time was putting art in the sky. One fall day in 1979, Van Sant had sent up his latest creation, a twisting centipede of a kite, when he bumped into a man on the Baja, Mexico, beach.

"That's amazing," the onlooker said. "Can I help?"

Thus began a friendship with Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman that would turn Van Sant's art sharply toward the scientific.

The artist gave the physicist drawing lessons and, before he died in the mid-'80s, Feynman lent his expertise for a Van Sant creation: the world's smallest drawing. It involved using the world's largest scanning electronic microscope to burn a picture of the human eye into a grain of salt; the image was then recorded with an electron beam. The artist named it "Ryan's Eye" for his baby son.

Van Sant had already explored the other extreme. In a project cooked up for the Los Angeles bicentennial, he and a crew set up mirrors in the shape of an eye across a 1 1/2-mile stretch of the Mojave Desert to overexpose sensors in a satellite passing overhead. The result was the world's largest drawing.

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