Chasing comets down the wires
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #22

Quick, what's the fastest way to track a comet? A pocket telescope out of the window? Wrong! The Hubble telescope images, whizzing through the Internet, have made stars-n- planets space enthusiasts follow the collision last week between Jupiter and Shoemaker-Levy 9 like they never could before. Cyberspace is home to amateurs and professionals in all possible areas of human activity -- and as the huge traffic on special interest news groups showed, it is the best place to keep a look out from, whether you're watching Silicon Valley or Jupiter.

Days before the collision, the Net was buzzing with activity. News groups -- open forums distributed globally and organized by topic -- such as sci.astro and were rife with speculation on the exact timings, various scenarios for the crash and possible outcomes on the solar system. People wondered what the chances are of such an event occurring on our own planet. Enthusiasts wanted to know where they should point their own telescopes; others asked about TV coverage. Naturally, with so many questions, in true Internet tradition someone created a FAQ -- a list of answers to Frequently Asked Questions.

While answering such basic questions as whether the collision would really take place, and who Shoemaker and Levy are, the FAQ also gave impact timings and suggested ways of observation, and other sources of information.

One such source was the Shoemaker-Levy 9 mailing list. Mailing lists are yet another form of Internet resource, that cater to a more specialized readership than existing news groups. Typically sent by e-mail to a few hundred subscribers, mailing lists can be moderated -- with appointed 'editors' so to speak -- or open, where all posts to the list reach every subscriber. Mailing lists are ideal for detailed coverage of events while they happen. The SL9 list started about two weeks ago, and with the last piece of the comet exploded, will probably die in another week.

Another source of information was the World Wide Web. Popularly known as WWW or the Web with a capital W, this is a recent innovation caused mainly by the increased bandwidth available worldwide. It adds hypertext links to existing Net services, and bundles them all inside a common, mouse-based interface known as Mosaic. A hypertext version of the FAQ was put up on the Web. A number of SL9 'home pages' sprung up all over the place, and provided continuously updated information and even images and animated sequences of the collision, all at the touch of a mouse half-way round the world. Large collections of pictures were created and many were posted on the news groups. For a comet hunter all these resources were enormous; for an outsider from another field they were absolutely mind-boggling.

What 'Shoemaker-Levy in Cyberspace' demonstrated beautifully was the participatory nature of the Internet, especially its news groups. News groups provide a model for the bottom-up distribution of information that is usually much closer to sources than in the mainstream media -- it is the sources themselves, after all, who usually participate in these forums. The mix of amateurs and people actually working and researching in the field of interest, and the openness of these groups where anyone can join in, makes for a very productive environment.

Interactive applications and new technologies can make international events out of spectacles, substituting involvement for placid observation. As society gets used to this instant globalization of activity, it discovers that cyberspace is not necessarily far removed from the real thing.

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