Science Matters: Taking the planet for a spin

Perspective is everything. From 50,000 kilometres away, the Earth is just a giant blue ball floating in a dark universe. Zoom in to 5,000 kilometres and you can make out key geographic features – mountain ranges, rivers and the tell-tale signs of agriculture and industry.

Zoom in to 100 kilometres and you begin to get a feel for the extent of urban sprawl around our cities and the size of clear cuts in our forests. But why stop there? You can zoom in further, to your community, your street – your home.

I’m not talking theoretically, or referring to some secret spy satellite technology. Today, you can do all of these things from your home computer using a nifty little tool called Google Earth.

New technologies have always fascinated me because of the promise they hold. Years ago, I immediately got a laptop when Hewlett-Packard brought them out because I knew it would revolutionize my life as a traveling journalist. And I was right. I was also one of the first in line to buy a low-polluting hybrid car when they were introduced and I’m always interested in new medical techniques and scientific technologies. Still, I am not exactly a technophile. Gadgets and gizmos generally fail to woo me and I’m not easily amused by the latest electronic fad.

That said, this new web tool amazes me. Available for free to virtually anyone with access to a computer, it enables users to zoom in on any place on the planet. You can explore the Grand Canyon or the streets of Toronto. You can visit the vast, open wheat fields of Saskatchewan and the cramped, crowded favelas of Rio.

In some areas, the maps combine both satellite imagery with topographical information to create an exact landscape. Other regions are not as detailed and some maps are blurry, but as the availability of satellite images increases, the maps can be updated with new information and eventually high-definition images.

One of the most interesting features of the program is that anyone from anywhere in the world can add thumb tacks to mark notable features – everything from oil spills and deforestation in the Amazon to favourite local restaurants or hiking trails. It’s like a global community bulletin board. News websites can also link their stories to maps so readers can pinpoint exactly where stories are unfolding.

Global maps and photos have been available for a long time on the Internet, but this interface and the ability to examine the entire planet in such detail is new – and promising. This is a tool that is sure to get children excited about geography and learning about towns and cities all over the world. It can be used to bridge cultures and teach people about the different environmental challenges facing various countries.

But perhaps most important, it brings things into perspective. Biologically, we are still the tribal animal that evolved 100,000 years ago when we might know perhaps 100 people in a lifetime. The challenge today is to think of the collective impact of all of humanity – and that kind of thinking is not easy. This program enables us to see the big picture. Seeing the entire planet floating alone in space, then within seconds zooming down to your own home is a humbling experience. It makes everything seem so small and fragile – which, of course, it is.

Suddenly the war in Iraq doesn’t seem so distant; the slums of Calcutta become just a hop across the ocean; a stranger’s home just a click away. The concept of a “global community” has never been so tangible. Looking at the planet from 50,000 kilometres up, you can’t help but feel a new sense of connection to this place. After all, this is it. All the known life in the universe. This is all we’ve got.

Google Earth is a logical name for the project, but given the way it makes you think about the planet they really should have called it Google Home.