What we have produced here is a general qualitative overview of space physics, the kind of material which could fit a freshman course "space physics for poets." It is still an experiment. Until now the usual way of communicating to the public has been by the printed word: the world-wide web is an entirely new tool, and it is too early to predict how it will work.
A quick comparison:
A book is easy to hold and browse through. You can read while relaxing in an easy chair or in bed, and you need not wait for text or pictures to download.
But to see it, even only for a quick look, you must go to a bookstore, library
or a friend's bookshelf.
To own it, you must pay money.
To publish it, you need a publisher, and the process is fairly lengthy and expensive.
A web document is easy to reach and browse through, and it comes free. You can
even download it and print it.
It is easily produced on a shoestring budget.
It is potentially more versatile, for instance, it may contain sound and movies, cite other web documents and use internal cross-references.
But it requires a good computer and network access, which the average person
probably does not yet have. The potential audience is therefore smaller.
The user must sit at a desk, and may have to wait as images are downloaded.
Which is better? I don't know. One option being seriously considered is to try both routes and make this a printed book as well as a web document.
At the present stage the document is still incomplete. It has almost all of the text--at least, in first draft--but only part of the illustrations, which had unexpected problems. Illustrations are in any case problematic: they are very enticing--much easier to read a picture than 1000 words!--but downloading them takes time, and meanwhile users may lose interest. Our solution so far has been to use small pictures which load quickly, but to include the option of displaying a bigger version, with the user warned in advance about the number of kilobytes involved.
The material is completely self-contained, and does not require the user to know any science--or any math, for that matter, because none is used. But it does require time and patience because, as you find out, there is a lot of ground to cover.
History is not only important as a framework, it is also where the stories are, which add interest to the exposition. In particular, telling how discoveries occured helps give the non-scientist some of the flavor of the scientist's work, and make clear that a scientist's view of nature is based on careful deduction, not on arbitrary guesswork.
And the other was Isaac Asimov, the most accomplished popularizer of our era. His popular science books remain eminently readable, and you will find that he always stressed clarity and employed a lot of history.
The main one, of course, is that interesting discoveries have been made in space by unmanned satellites, that a whole new world has been opened up in the magnetosphere, a whole new range of phenomena.
We want to tell the users that here is one of the frontiers of human knowledge, and it contains many as yet unsolved mysteries. To the extent people are interested in science--and not everyone is, we must admit that--it is this feature which seems to attract them--the novelty, the exploration of the unknown. There is a little bit of the explorer in every one of us, which is why this web document is titled "Exploration of the Magnetosphere."
Another message is that although space physics seems exotic, it is just an application of the same science one learns in school. Science teachers ought to find new relevance for their material, and engineers or technicians may also relate to it.
For example, to illustrate what a plasma is, the operation of a fluorescent tube is described, and later the ballast coil of such a tube is given as an example for storage of energy by a magnetic field.
Still another message is the international character of science. Not just Americans but also Swedes, Britons, Norwegians, Japanese, Russians, Germans and others have been deeply involved, and we have tried to give credit to all of them.
The full network version will be periodically updated, and we hope to include in it a current-events file "recent explorations", as well as links to other web pages.
We are also seriously considering a shorter, simpler and easier version. The main problem with this material is that, frankly, there is an awful lot of it. A short quick version can leave out some of the details and niceties, and anyone interested in those can be referred to the longer text.
And we plan a disk version, perhaps as an add-on freebie on CD-ROMs of space data which have unused disk space. And as noted before, it may also become a book of 150 pages or so.
"Exploration" home page ......... "Exploration" index
Official GSFC Home Page ......... NASA WWW Home Page
Last updated: June 5, 1996