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  • The Internet as a (WorldWide) Telescope

    What famous observatory is more important than any other, yet has no lens, and no mirror? Is it Claudius Ptolemy's at Alexandria in the 2nd century AD? Maybe Uraniborg or Stjerneborg built by Tycho Brahe using 1% of the GDP of Denmark in the the 16th century? Nope. The answer is a creation of the 20th century: the internet.

    The ever-growing wealth of astronomical data available freely online literally holds answers to the mysteries of the Universe. The WorldWide Telescope is the telescope that lets any of us view the Universe using the internet as our observatory, to puzzle out those mysteries.

    The WorldWide Telescope is a "Universe Information System" that runs online in a web browser, or in Windows, on almost any computer or tablet. It accesses the internet's amazing treasure-trove of online data to provide beautiful all-sky imagery at dozens of wavelengths, as well as detailed images of deep sky objects, and other astrophyscially important targets. In addition, it offers links to in-depth information about objects, through links to diverse databases including Wikipedia and NASA's Astrophysics Data System, which holds all of the professional Astronomical literature since the 1800's. Users of WorldWide Telescope (also known as WWT) can create, share, and experience "Tours" of the Sky and of a three-dimesional model of the known Universe by saving paths through the program recorded as if by a virtual camera. These Tours look like video with musical scores, narration, additional imagery, and hyperlinks but are dramatically different in that you can interact and explore deeper and go anywhere at any time or pick up right where you left off! Just imagine WWT as an interactive web-browser for the sky. A sky-browser of sorts. Oh, and it's free.

    How the Internet Became an Observatory

    When the internet first began to grow, astronomers thought of it mainly as a tool that would enable more "remote" observing, both on mountaintops and from space. But, then, as web browsers became more powerful, and data exchange over the web became commmonplace, astronomers around the globe realized the potential the web held for creating an online set of interconnected astronomical data and research tools that would ultimately offer the best "observatory" the world had ever seen. In the United States, the National Science Foundation awarded a large consortium of institutions an initial grant in 2001 to create what was then called the "Framework for the National Virtual Observatory." The "NVO" created in 2001 beacame the "Virtual Astronomical Observatory" in 2010, jointly funded by the NSF and NASA. Meanwhile, related Virtual Observatory efforts accelerated around the world, especially in Europe and the UK.

    A good deal of the work in building a Virtual Observatory revolves around "standards" needed to make resources interoperate. A small group of people around the world find the creation and implementation of such standards fascinating, and they have happily formed a semi-volunteer organization called the "International Virtual Observatory," or "IVOA." The IVOA's work is invisible to most practicing astronomers, but it is important to appreciate how critical it is in allowing resources to inter-operate. For example, some amateur astronomers will be familiar with the "FITS" format for images. It is IVOA standards that allow for those FITS images to be searched for, viewed, and exchanged within the many search tools and software packages that even just one astronomer might use. The work of the IVOA is not unlike that of ICANN or the W3C, which are similarly critical, and also near-invisible, bodies that enable the functioning of the internet we all use everyday.

    Today, in spite of funding woes worldwide, but particularly in the US, a worldwide set of astronomical resources that enable "virtual" observing are out there, and are arguably more accessible, freely available, and coordinated than in any other field of science. The trick is to access these resources with an easy-to-use and powerful tool. Enter the WorldWide Telescope.

    The Universe Project becomes WorldWide Telescope

    The Worldwide Telescope was started by amateur astronomer Curtis Wong who grew up in Los Angeles with a deep desire to explore the amazing Sky he saw in magazines like Sky and Telescope. Of course between the city lights and the smog, all he could see with his 60mm refractor were the moon, a few planets and nebulae. What he really wanted was a gigantic telescope with a dark sky and a Harvard astronomer by his side to guide and explain what he was looking at.

    When he grew up, Wong became an interactive media producer creating some of the first CD-ROMs, such as Multimedia Beethoven in 1991. He started a new CD-ROM project called John Dobson’s Universe with guided tours by Dobson explaining deep sky objects in the context of a zoomable night sky featuring the beautiful constellation imagery of Akira Fuji and object imagery from multiple sources. Unfortunately funding for that project got cancelled but Wong continued to think about how it could be done with the emergence of the World Wide Web.

    By 2000, Wong was at Microsoft Research where he worked with big data computer scientist Jim Gray and astronomer Alex Szalay from Johns Hopkins. Gray and Szalay were working on software to make data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey available on-demand to researchers and the public and they wrote a seminal paper together envisioning "The World-Wide Telescope, an Archetype for Online Science" [http://arxiv.org/ftp/cs/papers/0403/0403018.pdf]. In working with Gray and Szalay, Wong realized that all the elements were finally becoming available to create his astronomy project, then code-named "The Universe Project."

    In 2005, Wong attended a Kavli workshop at The University of Chicago called The Visualization of Astrophysical Data and presented his vision for the Universe Project. Wong's slides are still online at the conference site, here: https://kicp-workshops.uchicago.edu/visualization2005/. Also attending the workshop was Alyssa Goodman, a Harvard Astronomy professor with long-standing interests in data visualization and innovation in education. Goodman and Wong became fast friends, and Goodman promised to help with the "Universe" project, if it were ever possible to fund its creation.

    In 2006, Wong got the go-ahead to make the Universe Project real, and in so-doing he had the great fortune to collaborate with Jonathan Fay, an extraordinary software architect and amateur astronomer himself. The software was built during 2006-8 with Wong designing the experience and Fay developing technical architecture and code, while Goodman and other professional astronomers provided input and advice on content and how researchers and the public might use it.

    The software was renamed "WorldWide Telescope" (WWT) in honor of Jim Gray who had been lost at sea in early 2007. WWT was first previewed at the 2008 TED Conference by Roy Gould, science education expert at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. S&T featured WWT in 2008, in an article by Stuart Goldman, who explained that WWT is so feature-laden that to learn it, one should "Watch the introductory tours to learn your way around the program — and then left- and right-click on everything!" This is still very good advice--and there's much more to find now than there was in 2008!