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The Internet: Expanding the Way We Do Science

January 1997

  • A solar wind blasts across Earth's magnetic field, creating ripples of energy that jostle satellites and disrupt electrical systems. By creating computer images of these events, NSF-funded physicists at the University of Maryland and Dartmouth College are using the Internet to develop a better space-weather forecasting system.

  • An NSF-funded anthropologist at Penn State University uses his Internet connection to wade through oceans of information. Finally, he chooses the EMBL-Genbank in Bethesda, Md., and searches for the DNA sequence of a gene he's studying. He finds it, highlights the information, downloads it and logs off.

  • It's time to adjust the space science equipment in Greenland. First, specialized radar is pointed at an auroral arc. Then an all-sky camera is turned on. The physicist controlling the equipment is part of a worldwide team of researchers working on NSF's Upper Atmospheric Research Collaboratory (UARC). When he's finished making the adjustments, he pushes back from his computer in his Ann Arbor, Mich. office.

This is the Internet at work in the lives of scientists around the globe.

"The Internet is radically changing the way we do science," pronounces Mark Luker, Program Manager for the NSFNET.

No one disagrees.

The Internet allows satellite space weather data, downlinked through Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., to be passed on to the Pittsburgh Supercomputer Center. Then John Lyon of Dartmouth College (Hanover, N.H.) and his colleague Charles Goodrich of the University of Maryland (College Park, Md.) use the data to steer their computer simulations of space weather conditions.

The Net also allows Lyon and Goodrich to bring both the satellite and simulation data into their respective offices for interpretation and analysis. They jointly plot and visualize the data, sharing their results over the Net.

The Internet, with its millions of connections worldwide, is changing the way science is done. It's making science more collaborative, making more data available, and producing results faster. The Net also offers new ways of displaying results, such as virtual reality systems that can be accessed from just about anywhere, and it allows scientists to get answers to questions they could only think about a few years ago.

A Meeting of Minds and Equipment

When the Internet started, it was seen as an inexpensive way for scientists to share information. It was first developed by the Department of Defense and NSF quickly created its own system, linking universities and businesses.

Since the creation of the NSFNET Backbone in the 1980s, Internet growth has been nonstop. For example, in March 1991, the Backbone was transferring 1.3 trillion bytes of information per month. By the end of 1994, the Backbone was transmitting 17.8 trillion bytes per month, the equivalent of electronically moving the entire contents of the Library of Congress every four months.

And the original goal--sharing geographically remote resources including people, equipment and data--has succeeded beyond belief.

But on a more profound level, the Net is facilitating the creation of broader studies.

"Instead of special interest groups focusing on smaller questions, the Net allows people to look at the big picture," says Luker, who works out of the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE).

By "special interest groups" Luker means the more traditional, individualistic style of science where a researcher receives a grant, buys equipment, and is the sole author of the results.

The current trend is for multiple investigators to conduct coordinated research focused on broad phenomena, according to Tom Finholt, an organizational psychologist from the University of Michigan who studies the relationship between the Internet and scientists.

This trend, Finholt and others hasten to add, has existed for a long time, but has been greatly facilitated by the Net's e-mail, Web pages and electronic bulletin boards.

In addition, formal collaboratories--or virtual laboratories of collaborators--are forming around the globe.

UARC is one of these. Developed in Ann Arbor, the collaboratory has participants at 10 sites in the United States and Europe. Scientists can read data from instruments in Greenland, adjust some instruments remotely, and "chat" with their colleagues as they view the data.

"Often space scientists have deep but narrow training," says Finholt. UARC allows researchers to fit specialized perspectives into a bigger picture. "Space scientists now believe they have reached a point where advances in knowledge will only be produced by integrating information from many specialties."

But for all the benefits of online collaboratories, the logistics are still troubling. Most notably, the Internet can be slow. In some cases, data are garbled or lost because of network congestion.

Strengthening the Net

NSF is addressing these problems by pushing the Net into high gear. Last summer, Luker and Paul Young, then Assistant Director of CISE, announced the expansion of NSF's experimental, newer, faster Net--the vBNS, or very fast Backbone Network Service.

The vBNS was originally used only by NSF's supercomputer sites, but CISE has provided 13 other institutions with grants of $350,000 each to upgrade their networks so they can operate at 622 megabytes per second, four times faster than the current commercial best.

Young was key in the initial planning of the vBNS. He has since returned to the University of Washington, but his groundwork for this faster system will help CISE's current Assistant Director, Juris Hartmanis, create an Internet that supports robotics and intelligent systems. CISE plans to hook up the vBNS to an additional 50 to 100 institutions in the next several years, says Luker.

The vBNS will be used for meritorious scientific projects, he continues, not more e-mail. "We're dividing up the network as you would a freeway. We're putting in express lanes and regular lanes," he says. "These are high-performance networks, not just high-speed networks. There is research that requires multi-media, for example, and good quality service for video--applications that don't work well on the commercial network."

More, Faster, Better!

Ken Weiss is an anthropologist at Penn State University and an NSF-supported researcher studying the worldwide genetic variability of humans. He is not actively seeking a hook-up to the vBNS, but he says the Internet has had a significant impact on his research.

For example, he uses e-mail constantly, finding it more convenient than the phone ever was. And he has access to more data--much more data.

He can download gene sequences from around the world and do research on specific genes. While Weiss is an active user, he doesn't necessarily agree that more is always better.

"The jury is still out on some aspects, such as the exponential growth of databases, which may be outpacing our ability for quality control. Sometimes the data collection serves as a substitute for thought," says Weiss.

Other disciplines are seeing an equally phenomenal surge of information. For example, anyone interested in sociology can now download full collections of census information, databases that used to be housed at only a few universities. And the Net has increased access to published journals.

While the new availability of information may seem to make the Net a democratizing force in science, Weiss cautions that the jury is also still out on that issue. Because there is a continuous push for faster technology, he expects there will always be an inherent elitism as people with the latest equipment push the technological limits.

The Way You Look at It

Presenting the multitude of data in a useful manner is a challenge for a different section of the Net. Researchers such as Tom DeFanti are manipulating the computer tools that provide multi-media, interaction, virtual reality and other applications. The results, he says, will move computers into another realm.

DeFanti, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, is one of the main instigators of I-WAY or the Information Wide Area Year, a demonstration of pure computer power. For the 1995 Supercomputer Conference in San Diego, DeFanti and his colleagues, Rick Stevens of the Argonne National Laboratory and Larry Smarr of the National Center for Supercomputer Applications, linked more than a dozen of the country's fastest computer centers and visualization environments.

The computer shows were more than exercises in pretty pictures. They provided new ways of digging deeply into the available data. For example, participants in the Virtual Surgery were able to use the National Medical Library's Visible Man and pick up a "virtual scalpel" to cut "virtual flesh."

At another exhibit, a researcher demonstrated telerobotics and telepresence. While projecting a cyber-image of himself into the conference, the researcher worked from a remote console and controlled a robot who interacted with conference attendees.

Applications such as these are just the beginning, says DeFanti. Eventually the Internet will simultaneously provide a broader and more in-depth experience.

"We're taking the computer from the 2D 'desktop' metaphor and turning it into a 3D 'shopping mall' model of interaction," he says. "We want people to go into a computer and be able to perform multiple tasks just as they do at a mall, a museum or even a university."


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