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Artist Creates a Picture-Perfect World : Technology: With the help of science and computer experts, Tom Van Sant creates a remarkably detailed image of the Earth as it appears from space.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The globe on your bookshelf was never like the GeoSphere.

Instead of man-imposed borders and artificially colored countries, there is a picture-perfect, remarkably detailed, cloudless image of the Earth’s land masses and oceans, pretty much as they appear from space.

As the globe rotates, light from an artificial sun throws some continents into shadows or “night,” and then tiny optic fibers wink on to mark the light show of the world’s major cities after dark.

The image is a complex mosaic of thousands of satellite photos pieced together by a team of artists, computer experts and scientists under the direction of Santa Monica artist Tom Van Sant. He financed the project first with a $30,000 grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, then by using the proceeds from the sale of his Los Feliz home, then by stretching his credit to the breaking point.

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Computer-graphics experts from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena joined Van Sant’s team, mostly in their spare time, to create the technology that made the image possible. Before they were finished, they had not only invented methods for Van Sant to correct color distortions in satellite pictures but also devised a program that permitted Van Sant to see through the clouds that perpetually blanket parts of the Earth.

The “globe” the team produced could revolutionize the globe industry when it enters the market, as early as next year, says Jon Hultman, an executive with Replogle Globes Inc., an Illinois-based firm and major globe manufacturer. Hultman is negotiating distribution rights to Van Sant’s creation, which may be the biggest thing in globes since the 1950s, when bumps were placed on them to symbolize mountain chains.

For Van Sant, the project is more than the realization of an artistic dream. It is a necessity, he says, a potential cure for mankind’s predilection for failing to treat the Earth as a fragile, organism-like entity.

“The Earth is like a person,” he said. “You might not appreciate how much you would be affected if something happened to a small part of you, like your big toe. But everything is connected, interrelated.” An untreated infection in one small place could imperil the entire organism, he says.

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Van Sant says the GeoSphere can make this point forcefully. GeoSphere technology can go beyond creating what its makers call a “reality image” of the Earth. The technology has the potential to generate computer pictures of the Earth, past and future.

Such projections already exist in the form of tables and charts, the dialect of scientists. The purpose of a three-dimensional globe is to translate scientific data into a picture that can be understood by policy-makers and ordinary people.

“If the World Bank is deciding whether to support dam building or a deforestation project in the Amazon, they are not now able to see all the ramifications of this decision,” Van Sant said.

Ultimately, GeoSphere technology will be able to project “what the Amazon region looked like in 1972, 1982, and show what it looks like in 1990,” Van Sant said. “With risk projection, we can show what the rain forests will look like in 2010 given the same rate of deforestation.”

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“Earth-resource studies and Earth sciences are no longer territory for scientific inquiry alone,” he said. “They are essential ingredients in the formation of public policy.”

It makes perfect sense for an artist to be heading a scientific project with that goal, Van Sant says. “Artists are tremendously needed in the world of technology to be able to take these issues and communicate them effectively.” Besides, he said, “I’m comfortable with large things.”

Van Sant has crossed between art and science before. In 1980, he placed sunlight-reflecting mirrors in the Mojave Desert to overexpose picture panels in a satellite passing overhead. The overexposure created what appeared to be a drawing of a giant eye, about 2.5 kilometers across, or 100,000 times the size of a human eye.

And, he has used a stream of electrons to etch a microscopic eye, 100,000 times smaller than normal, into the side of a salt crystal.

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Van Sant, 59, has also produced more traditional art--paintings, murals and sculptures--all across Southern California. The former Marine and Korean War veteran has supported himself as an artist since earning a master’s degree in fine arts in 1957 from the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles.

Van Sant has accepted virtually no commissions, however, since March, 1989, when an eye infection after a cornea transplant nearly blinded him.

“The only thing that could save my eyes was the administration of five different antibiotics in my eyes every half-hour for 10 days,” he recalls. “That’s a treatment that made everyone crazy, even the nurses. I emptied my mind of all thought and resided there for 10 days. When that period was over, the GeoSphere made a choice on me. Nothing else would reside in my mind.”

But single-mindedness was no substitute for technical expertise. That is why Van Sant called JPL’s Van Warren, who had put together a cruder computer-assisted Earth mosaic on his own.

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“I always wanted to see the Earth as it looked from space,” Warren said. “We pay so much attention to other planets, why not pay attention to our own planet? It is what affects us most of the time.”

JPL agreed to release Warren for four months to work with Van Sant, who used his own money to purchase a $200,000 advanced graphics computer. Overall, the artist, who lives in a Santa Monica garage apartment with his 8-year-old son, estimates that he has invested about $350,000 in the project.

For months, the GeoSphere team labored in a dark, creaky, converted garage in Pasadena. Between them, Van Sant and Warren painstakingly pored over about five years of satellite data and aerial photography bought or borrowed from government storage facilities. The goal was to find at least one cloud-free satellite picture of every section of land and water. From these, Van Sant could use Warren’s computer program to assemble a single mosaic-style picture of the Earth.

Some areas, such as parts of the Amazon, the Congo and southern New Zealand, were always covered with clouds. Enter JPL’s Jim Knighton, who had purchased charts and tables, originally compiled by the CIA, describing various rivers and coastlines. Even before he met Van Sant, Knighton, who has now become the project’s technical director, had been using computer graphics to convert these data into picture form.

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The image remained seriously flawed, however, because the colors--coded by scientists concerned with such topics as surface temperature and infrared radiation--were wrong. Heavily forested areas, for instance, typically came out red instead of green. Van Sant says they looked like raw meat.

Leo Blume, another computer-graphics consultant who then worked for JPL, designed a program to correct the colors.

At every turn, Van Sant could move forward with the mosaic only after his technical team created a computer medium within which he could work. It was as if da Vinci had to keep the “Mona Lisa” on hold while his colleagues struggled to invent the paintbrush.

The image that emerged is not quite a photo, although it looks like one. Surface features in perpetually cloud-covered areas were traced in through computer graphics and colored as they would appear. Green areas were made a little greener, to compensate for natural factors that convert green to a dull brown when viewed from space. Other surface features, such as rivers, were enhanced to make them more visible.

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The team says its computer image, finished in April, is one of the largest and most complex ever assembled. It contains well over 37 million pixels. Each pixel is an individually controlled dot of color that makes up part of the image. And every pixel had about 15 sets of data behind it.

“Because of its sheer enormity,” Warren said, “I did feel at times like a bricklayer.”

The resolution enables Van Sant to show any object on the surface that is four kilometers--about 4,400 yards--or larger, although a person might need a powerful magnifying glass to see it.

Next, Van Sant would like to try for a one-kilometer resolution, which would require four times the amount of information and render objects as small as airports distinguishable.

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In Van Sant’s computer, the Earth appears on a monitor and will turn or rotate on command. The computer program can zoom in on any designated geographic location, such as the Nile River. Van Sant eventually hopes JPL’s Knighton can package this software for home computers.

Van Sant says an inexpensive home globe for families and classrooms is also just around the corner. Ideally, that globe would include a variety of snap-on accessories, to show political boundaries, for instance.

In the meantime, Van Sant has lined up vendors to sell poster versions of his GeoSphere image. Just in time, Van Sant says, noting he has come near the end of his savings and credit. “The universe is looking after us,” he said.


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