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What It Takes To Really, Truly Understand Weather on Earth: Art

Perhaps chalk it up to lack of caffeine, but I've spent a cool 30 minutes here trying to think of a good metaphor or statistic that might point to how insanely complex weather on Earth is -- the near-infinitely vast number of variables and interactions...

by Michael Byrne
Sep 20 2012, 7:20pm

Perhaps chalk it up to lack of caffeine, but I’ve spent a cool 30 minutes here trying to think of a good metaphor or statistic that might point to how insanely complex weather on Earth is — the near-infinitely vast number of variables and interactions that lead to the messy thing you might be about to experience from the sky. I’d say it’s a bit like trying to understand the interactions in the brain that make up consciousness, but that’s not quite it.

The NOAA told me this morning that they collect “billions and billions of weather observations daily” — from satellites, weather stations, radar, etc — to generate their prediction models, so there’s that. (And that the NOAA sports supercomputers capable of 69.7 trillion calculations per second.) And there’s the famous butterfly effect, too — how slight changes to the initial conditions of a chaotic system might have large-scale effects — that might give some idea the super-dynamic insanity going on up there. Generally, however, we still recieve weather information in terms of smiley suns and frowny clouds from attractive faces on TV with humanties educations.

It seems silly or at least ironic to suggest a need for a weather data visualization. We do live in it and, what’s more, it’s one of those weird things on Earth we can’t engineer or do anything about and just have to deal with. But just experiencing is not the totality of understanding weather because, honestly, a whole lot of our weather experience is just in terms of smiley suns and hey nice day and not so much, weather is insane and vast and barely even knowable. The point here is that, yes actually, a really great artistic visualization of weather systems would be awesome. And so here we have “Point Cloud,” the project of sculptor James Leng with the express goal of “reimagining our daily interaction with weather data” by finally uniting the untangible infinity of weather with the real, lived ways in which we interact with it all of the time.

I’ll let Leng explain more:

Most of the time it is an invisible network that we can see but are not aware of; yet it can manifest in a spectacle or disaster, come forward and activate our senses, make us forget our rationality in delight or fear. With modern scientific and technological developments, we can now deploy sophisticated monitoring devices to document and observe weather. Yet despite these advances, our analysis and understanding of meteorology is still largely approximate, and in many cases, inaccurate. Weather continues surprise us and elude our best attempts to predict, control, and harness the various elements.

In contrast, however, the nuances of weather's continuously shifting states are largely oversimplified as the information is transmitted into our daily experience. Our various home and mobile devices most likely distill a forecast into static representations, such as numeric values or simple infographics of sun, clouds, or rain. There is a deep discrepancy between the flatness of the visualizations we are accustomed to, and the rich mixture of tactility and perceptibility of our immediate physical experience. As a critical response to these issues, Point Cloud emerges as a sculptural form defined by a thin wire mesh, driven asynchronously by 8 individual servos controlled via Arduino. As whiteness of the hanging structure begins to disappear into the background, the viewer is treated to a constantly morphing swarm of black points dancing through midair.

Here’s what that looks like:

Point Cloud from James Leng on Vimeo.

So the project looks very nice, and a bit like the weather, the more you look at it and try and understand what it’s doing the more impressive “Point Cloud” is. This second bit of explanation might be helpful for that as well.

The second aspiration of the project is an attempt to conceptually mime the structural complexity of meteorological systems — wherein predictable elements converge into unpredictable or unexpected outcomes. The various components of Point Cloud are functionally autonomous and clearly defined: 4 cables descend into a central control core, from which a lightweight steel space frame cantilevers and supports the 8 servos. Each servo powers a cam mechanism that activates 3 to 4 pistons that push and pull on various parts of the wire mesh – composed of over 300 feet of wire thread, and 966 intersection joints. Despite the fact that the only type of mechanical actuation is linear, the resulting motion is like that of a third degree digital surface; the effects each push and pull ripple out along the elastic tension of the wire threads, and in combination with the syncopated rhythm of the servos, create movement that is complex, unexpected, and hopefully wondrous.

As an aside, I also recommend being on the side of a very large mountain, watching whisps of cloud sail skyward along upslope flows, breaking only at the summit where that same upslope flow turns into a sharp horizontal wind sheer. Meanwhile, a pack of storm clouds arcs over the ridge like a dark-grey cupped hand, fingers and everything, dropping lighting bolts at the treeline like V-1s on London. Your odds of getting a bolt to the head are a lot greater here, and that’s the ultimate weather-gone-real experience, but it’ll probablly pass without causing major medical trauma. And the Chinook winds will return by evening and you’ll fall asleep four-fifths dry now with a warm breeze that strangely doesn’t cool much with the evening’s darkness. That’s a good visualization method too.

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james leng
point cloud