Science on a Sphere creates worlds of possibilities

  • Science on a Sphere as seen in the lobby of Northern Illinois University's Founders Memorial Library.

    Science on a Sphere as seen in the lobby of Northern Illinois University's Founders Memorial Library. Courtesy of Joe King

Updated 11/18/2022 10:56 PM

On the first floor of Northern Illinois University's Founders Memorial Library hangs what may be the world's largest disco ball.

It also may be the most detailed representation ever of Huskie hometowns around the world. Or a high- resolution view of the surface of Mars, Jupiter or any of the other planets.


In fact, it can be all those things and much, much more, says Dean of NIU Libraries Fred Barnhart.

Known as Science on a Sphere, the six-foot sphere, which is located inside the main doors to the library on the first floor, just behind the escalators, is a blank canvas for images created by four laser projectors.

The library has unlimited access to a collection of more than 700 data presentations created by NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and dozens of other agencies, museums and planetariums around the world.

The technology was originally developed by NOAA as a means to educate with 3D representations of weather events, especially climate change.

Barnhart would like to see NIU students and faculty add to that collection.

"Seeing things presented on the sphere helps your mind process the information in a different way," says Barnhart. "And when you do that, it provides a completely new perspective. It is another way for students to learn and to engage with data, which is such an important skill today."

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Barnhart believes the sphere can be of particular benefit to the university's Department of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment department. Victor Gensini, an associate professor in that discipline, could not agree more. "Science on a Sphere provides an invaluable means for visualizing complex weather and climate model data. There's nothing else like it," he said.

But the uses of the sphere go well beyond weather patterns. Among the projects others have already done are representations of human empires over thousands of years, an analysis of bird migration patterns and a look at urbanification around the globe. Last spring, the library hosted an event billed as "Beer on the Sphere," which drew nearly 75 people, including local brewers and winemakers, who gathered to discuss global climate change and how it has already impacted their work, and what the future may hold.

"Anything that can be plotted on a 2D map, can be projected on the sphere, and I would love to see interdisciplinary teams of students from across the university devising and collaborating on projects that utilize the sphere to help them understand and explain data," said Barnhart, who envisions teams comprised of students from areas as diverse as time arts, history, political science, business and the sciences -- each bringing different perspectives to a project.

The possibilities of the technology were recently featured on the WGN Morning News.

Barnhart and his team are working to formalize a process to cultivate such projects, and share them with other institutions. Recruiting faculty and students from a variety of disciplines is key.


Bringing the unique learning tool into Founders is part of the evolution of the library, according to Barnhart, he says. "Libraries are more than just warehouses of knowledge. We want to make this a place where students come together to use and add to knowledge by collaborating and being creative."

As such, it is no coincidence that the sphere is located adjacent to the new Learning Commons on the library's first floor, where students can find tutoring, assistance with writing and other academic support services, which, Barnhart says has helped increase traffic in the library significantly this semester.

As part of those efforts, the library has created a flexible seating area around the sphere where students can study or just sit and enjoy whatever is being projected at that moment, but the space can also be configured to handle a class, which Barnhart hopes will become a regular occurrence. "We really want this to be a hub of creativity," he says.

To learn more about the Science on a Sphere, reserve it for use, or explore the many available presentations, contact the libraries at or visit the Science on a Sphere webpage at

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