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Science at Street Level: Professor Holland’s Opus

May 31, 2013


One of NYU’s architectural priorities over the past decade has been to open our buildings at street level.

Many of NYU’s buildings were not originally constructed for higher education. The area east of Washington Square was home to many commercial and light manufacturing businesses (including the Triangle Shirtwaist Company), and the buildings were constructed to house that kind of activity. Over time, as those businesses moved out of this part of Manhattan, NYU bought those spaces and re-purposed them for education.

But one of the legacies was ground floor exteriors that, naturally, had a very industrial look and feel: monolithic facades, roll-down gates, etc. So, over the last few years, we’ve been explicitly trying to correct that. You can see it in the entrances to the Department of Economics at Mercer Street and Washington Place, in the Department of Linguistics on Washington Place, and in the ground floor galleries, lounges, and entrances we have created for the Tisch School of the Arts and the Gallatin School of Individualized Study along Broadway.


One of the more intriguing un-shuttering efforts involves the laboratory of Courant Professor David Holland, which sits in a converted classroom on the ground floor of Mercer Street and Washington Place. Pedestrian passersby frequently peer into its windows and must wonder “what the heck is that contraption?” They probably don’t realize they are looking at a model of Earth or, more significantly, that it’s being used to understand basic physical processes that will help project changes in global sea levels.


Image05The southeast corner of Mercer St. and Washington Pl. – Professor Holland’s lab from the exterior

Holland has been studying the effects of climate change for years. His work involves collecting field data on glacier formation and using it to develop computer models that project future global sea level change due to melting ice. The street-level space allows pedestrians to watch him conduct these experiments, offering the urban audience a scientific Today Show of sorts.

The centerpiece of the lab is a rotating model of the Earth that looks nothing like the real thing. Rather, the structure—a “rotating fluids table” that is approximately 5 feet wide and 15 feet high—is composed of hard plastic cylinders filled with fluid that mimics the earth’s oceans. Another “dynamically similar” scale-model rendering of the earth is fed by readings of ocean levels around Greenland and Antarctica, which are then beamed back to Holland’s laboratory at NYU. No detail is spared in the process—even the water that fills the structure’s models is similar in composition to sea water. Overlooking the model are high-tech cameras that serve as “satellites” that capture “ocean” circulation and sea level change, and then feed that data to the lab’s computers for analysis.

Professor Holland and a student stand beside the device that simulates Earth’s environment

The device required ceiling heights usually available only on ground floors because the water tanks that feed the apparatus need to be placed at an ample distance. It’s a happy side effect that those walking by can now observe the research—funded by the NYU Abu Dhabi Research Institute and the National Science Foundation — as it happens.

Holland, who directs Courant’s Center for Atmosphere Ocean Science, has also studied the thinning of Jakobshavn Isbræ, one of Greenland's largest glaciers—a change he and his colleagues concluded was caused by subsurface ocean warming. The research team traced these oceanic shifts back to changes in the atmospheric circulation in the North Atlantic region. Their findings suggested that ocean temperatures may be more important for glacier flow than previously thought.

For more on the Center for Atmosphere Ocean Science, go to

—James Devitt and John Beckman

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