Bringing Science Online

Early linked version of an article in the
"Points of View" blog of "Physics Today"

    It all started December 1994, at a convention where space plasma researchers met the NASA HQ fellow in charge of their funding. "You people" he told us, "you are too involved in your own stuff. Reach out to members of the general public and let them know what you are doing!"

    Having some experience with small educational projects, that same month I started a collaboration with Dr. Mauricio Peredo on a free web-based educational overview "Exploration of the Earth's Magnetosphere" This became the first of four extensive free web expositions--the others "From Stargazers to Starships" ('98), "The Great Magnet, the Earth" ('00) and "All Things Electric and Magnetic" ('10), all of them (together with auxiliary files) reached from the central linking site In July 1975, at a conference in Boulder CO, an early version of "Exploration" was presented to the science community, and with the help of Dr. Peredo it was soon posted on the internet.

    The aim has always been to educate the public. As pointed out in "Using Space to Teach Physics" [The Physics Teacher, 37, p. 102-3, Feb 1999], a space connection helps motivate the study of science, and although space research is recent, much of its physics--mechanics, orbits, magnetic fields--can be presented at the level of classical high school physics. It was a plain, homespun educational tool: simple HTML was used, composed in text format on a basement Macintosh. Back in the days of phone-line modems, fast loading was important, also early file names had to be restricted to 8 letters to accommodate some systems.

"From Stargazers to Starships"

    Magnetospheric physics is a somewhat specialized field, of limited interest to a public most of which seems to regard magnetism as something arcane. To cover the main line of physics and astronomy, "From Stargazers to Starships" was next started and quickly became the core of the web project. Unlike "Exploration", it featured a fair amount of mathematics, though always stopping short of calculus. "Stargazers" was originally divided among (1) astronomy of Earth and solar system (2) Newtonian mechanics and (3) spaceflight--until a teacher rightly objected that "you cannot teach astronomy without stars. " A 4th section of 30 units was then added on the Sun, nuclear energy and modern physics, at the level of high school.

    Teaching poses the challenge of how to make astronomy more than mere memorization of written material. Selected calculations based on ancient and recent discoveries were therefore included--but at the cost of greater length.

    From the start these collections were meant to be self-contained. History provided a unifying framework, and stories of discoveries and discoverers added life to the narrative. I felt particularly proud of the detailed timeline, in which dates relevant to science were given in red (linked to sites in "Stargazers") and those of related to world history in black. Whenever a student in a history class discovers that site, another bridge to the humanities may be built. Another such bridge is provided by snippets of poetry (e.g "Frogs") scattered here and there.

    Volunteers have translated "Stargazers" into Spanish, French and Italian, a task helped by its simple coding: one just replaces each paragraph, headline and caption with its translation, keeping the format and images intact. It also added a "Math Refresher" course, plus a set of 46 lesson plans, a glossary, problems, and sites to help teachers (home schoolers have also found these useful).

    Almost inevitably, e-mail messages from users started arriving. Some expressed appreciation, but most came with questions, which were answered as promptly as possible. The more interesting (or entertaining) Q&As were posted on the web, and they afford an insight into the thinking of students, teachers and the general public and into their understanding of science. "Stargazers" currently lists 503 answered questions, "Exploration" 145, "The Great Magnet" 127. "All Things" has none--indeed, it seems to get very little use (we'll return to that later).

Branching Out

    The year 2000 marked the 400th anniversary of the book "De Magnete" by William Gilbert, physician to Queen Elizabeth of England, whose studies and experiments with magnets led him to explain the mysterious behavior of the compass needle. To mark the anniversary, a historical exposition "The Great Magnet, the Earth" was created and a review "A Millennium of Geomagnetism" was published and also made part of "The Great Magnet"

    In 2009 one more collection was added, "All Things Electric and Magnetic," presenting electricity at the level of a continuous fluid. This seemed appropriate for students in public schools, where education in this direction often ends with either Ohm's Law or the end of the school year, whichever comes first. A continuation into aspects involving electrons and their applications may follow later (or someone else will provide them), but even so, this elementary overview tries to cover topics such as the "Enigma" code machine and Maxwell's equations on a pre-calculus level.

    All these are self-contained courses, too extensive for any high school but perhaps just right for a self-motivated learner. Many sections are really optional--e.g. a personal account of aurora above Chicago, a folding paper model of the magnetosphere (also of the interplanetary magnetic field and of a sundial), ancient estimates of the distance of the Moon (two ways!), calculating a flight path to Mars, a course on nuclear energy, the black hole at the center of our galaxy, cannons that reach the edge of space (also here), the discovery of the unique distinction of Mt. Everest, an approximate derivation of logarithms (a better one here), origin of lodestones, a magnetic study of tobacco smoking, the accidental discovery of Jupiter's radio waves, the earliest glimmers of electromagnetic waves , the history of telegraphy... go on, get lost, but when you come back, write us about it!

    To complete the picture, there is also a personal collection "Welcome to My World", presenting poems, book reviews (currently 61), sermons and yes, a bit of more science.

If you build it, will they come?

    NASA never provided any funding. The NASA education office was approached time and again, an application was made to the director's discretionary fund, and other approaches were tried, but unfortunately, this effort fell outside NASA' array of outreach organizations. Instead, the sciences involved in unmanned space flight became largely the responsibility of space missions which concentrated on presenting their own projects. NASA's solar-terrestrial outreach effort all but ignored these web sites, with hardly any links from its sites or publications. They were submitted to a NASA's review and earned high marks, but still were kept out of NASA publicity.

    Links from other sites, of course, often give the credit to NASA.

    Initially the files were placed (thanks to Dr. Peredo) on a server of the National Space Science Data Center, associated with ISTP (International Solar Terrestial Physics project), and they can still be found there, under addresses such as . However that was an informal arrangement, and after one NASA educator told me "of course, we have no obligation to provide support for your sites," I bought the address and used it on the server of a friend of our son. That remains the main address.

    Other servers which carry the files are essentially mirror sites, e.g. the Russian Institute of Space Research (IKI). A Japanese translation of "The Great Magnet" resides on the computer of Prof. Iyemori's group at the University of Kyoto; I also suggested translating "Exploration" into Japanese, but was told "it is better for students to use the English version, it helps them learn the language." An abbreviated version of "Stargazers" is also part of the CK-12 educational library, and "Exploration" is featured on an educational disk produced over many years by Pat Reiff of Rice U.

Trapped on a Sticky Web

As any MBA knows, even quality products do not sell without wide advertising. Over the years links were placed on many gateway sites--e.g. AIP's "ComPADRE." However, it was expected that the most useful links would come from search engines such as Yahoo, Google and Dogpile, whose robot programs are constantly "crawling" the web. To ease the task of such searches, head-files with descriptors and keywords were provided, and a collection of 103 short summaries was posted on .

    At first this worked quite well, but in recent years, usage has dropped--as mentioned, "All Things Electric and Magnetic" has received very little attention. (search "All Things Electric" or "elementary course on electricity" and see what comes up). At a certain point those engines dropped most links to and instead gave preference to and its clones. This became clear only very recently, and those mirrors were quickly updated.

    However, even on those servers coverage is extremely spotty (try the topics listed earlier!), perhaps for two reasons. One is that paid listing displaces the free kind, even for non-commercial material that is provided at no cost for the public's benefit. And two, as web use has broadened, with scant quality control by search engines, the signal-to-noise ratio has dropped tremendously. Wikipedia (to which I contributed items on the aurora and the magnetosphere) is an exception; it does try to control quality, with fair success (and so does DMOZ). However, its links only provide spot information (as does "Hyperphysics", another excellent web resource) and are a poor guide for viewing the overall pattern of science.

    The future of all these projects is cloudy. It remains a one-person effort, and having turned 80, I don't know how much longer it can be maintained. Already most translation projects have been abandoned, the start of a slow retreat. One still hopes to find a successor to maintain and expand these units, and a guide to the tasks required is posted on the web. One may envision, for instance, a pool of women with good scientific training who need to stay home to raise their families, or retired physicists. But so far, no takers.

David P Stern       

Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol) .

Last updated: 5-29-2012