The story of the WorldWide Telescope

My guests for this week’s Perspectives are Microsoft researcher Curtis Wong and Harvard-Smithsonian science educator Roy Gould. At Ted 2008 they jointly delivered the first preview of the WorldWide Telescope, an elegant and powerful application for exploring the sky and weaving narratives about it. In this extended interview, you can hear (or read) the whole story behind the WWT.

I’d known that the WWT was based on Jim Gray’s work, and also that it was dedicated to him. I’d also heard several of the talks he’d given about SkyServer, SkyQuery, and the SQL and XML web services technologies powering those projects.

What I hadn’t fully grasped, until I began preparing for the interview with Curtis and Roy, was Jim Gray’s larger vision for that work. In 2002, with Alex Szalay of Johns Hopkins, he published a paper entitled The World-Wide Telescope: An Archetype for Online Science. Here’s the abstract:

Most scientific data will never be directly examined by scientists; rather it will be put into online databases where it will be analyzed and summarized by computer programs. Scientists increasingly see their instruments through online scientific archives and analysis tools, rather than examining the raw data. Today this analysis is primarily driven by scientists asking queries, but scientific archives are becoming active databases that self-organize and recognize interesting and anomalous facts as data arrives.

Although the WWT isn’t an instrument for professional scientists, Roy Gould thinks it will be used by citizen scientists to collaboratively search the fast-growing corpus of sky imagery. That is, of course, a poignant echo of the collaborative search for Jim Gray when his sailboat went missing.

But for Curtis Wong and Roy Gould, who grew up in Los Angeles and New York, respectively, where neither had access to the dark night sky, the WWT is first and foremost a way to reacquaint our society with the night sky, and to teach us about the universe.

Roy Gould says that when his team surveyed high school students around the country, they found that a majority believe that stars reside within the orbit of Pluto. They also believe that galaxies are closer than stars, because “stars are just point sources, no matter what the magnification, so they must be very far away, whereas galaxies, whatever they are, look big, so they must be closer.”

To fulfill its educational mission the WWT delivers seamless navigation of the sky, contextualized in a variety of ways. Objects are described onscreen, and linked to sources on the web. When you find your way to a stellar neighborhood, thumbnails of the objects in that neighborhood invite you to explore images from a variety of catalogs: the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, Hubble, Chandra.

What’s more, the imagery is correlated so you can see the same object in any of the wavelengths of light used to observe it. If you look at the Milky Way in the standard view, and then switch to infrared, a band of incandescent whiteness emerges from the cloud of stars.

You can use the WWT to explore the sky randomly, but most people will enjoy taking one of the guided tours. Curtis Wong’s lifetime of experience as a creator of interactive multimedia is distilled into this feature of the WWT. Tours are slideshows that move from one object in the sky to the next, and may be annotated with text, spoken-word audio, and music. But at any point you can pause the tour — or hop off the bus, as Curtis says — and explore the neighborhood on your own.

The WWT isn’t just a player of tours, it’s also an authoring tool for creating them. You create slides, navigate to objects in the sky, annotate them, and save the results in an XML format that you can reuse and share.

Like images from catalogs, tours are contextually available. So if you happen upon the Ring Nebula while exploring randomly, and if there’s a tour that mentions the Ring Nebula, then that tour will surface.

Curtis envisions a hypermedia web of sky narratives. For him, this storytelling aspect really is the heart of the project. In the interview he reveals for the first time that an early prototype for the WWT, shelved years ago, was to have been called John Dobson’s Universe.

Dobson, a leading amateur astronomer and innovative telescope builder, founded San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers, a group that encourages telescope owners to take their telescopes out in public and share their knowledge of the sky. The WorldWide Telescope is poised to carry on that great tradition, and take it in some amazing new directions.

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