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The Ozone Hole

A British Research Team

A British research team began to study the Earth’s Ozone layer during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s through a series of random experiments from their Antarctic base. By the late 70’s and early 80’s, their research began to indicate a minor depletion.

However, with limited knowledge of what was ‘normal’ and at the limits of the depth of their data, a conclusive result could not be ascertained and their results were not published.

NASA Satelites

In 1978, NASA launched the Nimbus 7 satelite to map Ozone and Ultra Violet levels in the atmosphere. Their studies were regularly published and showed no indication of ozone depletion to confirm the British research.

More British Research

By 1982, the British researchers were able to detect the first signs of a ‘hole’ in the ozone layer, each October with up to 20% depletion. With inferior, ground-based measurements, the British again conceded to the American research which continued to show contrary results.

By 1984, the British researchers had detected a hole showing upto 30% depletion and confirmed this result with identical reports from the Argentine Islands several thousand miles away. Their results were published shortly after.

More NASA Research

Upon this announcements NASA were shocked to say the least. The Nimbus satelite was continuously and automatically recording measurements as it flew around the world. Enormous quantities of data were supplied, far in advance of the British researchers, yet they had detected no signs of ozone depletion.

The job of analysing such great quantities of material was too large for any individual or group to analyse. Consequently, the job was given to a computer which collected the data directly from the satelite, analysed it and then presented it in complete form to the scientists.

The Error

Herein lay the problem. The fault was not within the computer itself, but the limits imposed upon it by the programmers. In an attempt to limit the effect of possible errors in measurement, the scientists told the computer to ignore readings outside perceived ‘normal’ limits.

When reprogrammed to model the complete measurements an obvious Ozone Hole was visible. For 6 years, from 1978 to 1984, Nimbus 7 had detected the ‘hole’ and scientists had failed to see it for they had structured their experiment to limit the full range of possible results.

Key Point

Through the ability of computers to manipulate large quantities of data, new perceptions and conceptions of the world can be created -but only if the user, as Einstein suggests, looks with ‘fresh eyes’. The question for designers is similar: Are the current preconceptions of ‘design’ limiting the possible benefits to be derived from computer technology?


Fisher, David E.; Fire and Ice: The greenhouse Effect, Ozone Depletion and Nuclear Winter; Harper and Row; New York; 1990; Pages 110-114.

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