Comet Hale-Bopp on the Web - A Useful Experience

This is the text of a poster paper presented by R. M. West (ESO) at the First International Hale-Bopp Conference at Tenerife in February 1998.

I. Introduction

New communication methods and global information networks have revolutionized the dissemination of astronomical news during the past few years. The World Wide Web (WWW) has developed into an indispensable tool for scientists, educators and the wide public. An increasing number of individuals all over the world is becoming involved and profit from easier access to news of their particular interest in almost all sectors of science, culture and society.

Physicists and astronomers were among the first to realize and make use of the vast new possibilities of Internet and, later, the WWW. Many astronomical institutes and organisations set up their own homepages soon after the WWW was first introduced some 5 years ago. In the early days, with the first browser versions developed at CERN and elsewhere, the capabilities were quite limited and the type and amount of information traded through the WWW was rather restricted. There is no need to describe here the explosive evolution that soon followed, suffice it to state that it would now be unthinkable to carry through astronomical research and to disseminate information about the same without the extremely efficient means of the WWW.

Various recent astronomical events, e.g. the impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 on Jupiter in 1994 , as well as the apparitions of the bright comets Hyakutake in 1996 and Hale-Bopp in 1997 provide useful demonstrations of the new possibilities inherent in the WWW. During the observational campaign that preceded the SL-9 impacts and during that hectic week in July 1994, much related information was spread via the WWW by a few dozen professional observers, but the interaction with the public on the WWW was still at a comparatively low level. Contrarily, the Hyakutake apparition provided a first taste of what was to come, as a vastly larger number of organisations and individuals set up their own Web sites and the number of interlinks between these rose exponentially. Finally, the Hale-Bopp event has shown with full force what is in store for the future. This particular event has consequently provided very useful experience, some of which will be related here, with main emphasis on the media and public aspects.

The start-up of the Hale-Bopp event on the web began immediately after discovery in July 1995. Its presence and degree of penetration evolved quite fast, thanks to the combined efforts of a very large number of individuals. As could be expected, this exercise was in general very positive. It demonstrated to a large public - on an hitherto unprecedented scale - the great benefits of international collaboration among scientists and, not the least, it allowed hundreds of thousands of interested by-standers all over the world to watch the scientific process in its pure form. This included publication of important new observations, speculations about possible causes of various phenomena, presentation of predictions with the associated "risks" and, in particular, the enthusiasm of the participants which expressed itself in many different ways. There is no doubt that all of this has greatly served to promote interest in science and better insight into the way it functions.

Unfortunately, the virtually unlimited possibilities of rapid distribution of news on the Web also led to certain misconceptions which are well known to the scientific community and the public. There is little doubt that the tragic event in California was partly due to the spreading on the web of unfounded rumours - willingly or not - by certain parties, a risk that probably can never be fully avoided considering the way the WWW functions.

II. The Comet Hale-Bopp WWW Components

The exchange of information about Hale-Bopp took place at many sites and at various levels. It is not the intention to link to or pick out specific examples of these varieties here; a representative list of selected Hale-Bopp sites is available at ESO. The Web sites with public access may be naturally divided by originator(s) into several groups, as follows:

1. Individuals

A great number and variety of small sites was set up by interested individuals, located in almost any country in the world. Many of these were amateur astronomers who published their own observations in terms of images with brief descriptions and, in some cases, with general personal considerations based on study of other Web sites. Some of these sites were quite simple, encompassing only one or two pages which seem to have been set up in some hurry at a moment of inspiration. Others were quite elaborate and documented great zeal and involvement of the authors. Some sites were made by young people, many with a particular interest in astronomy and some seem to have been instigated by computer-interested friends or teachers at schools and clubs. 

2. Educational Establishments

Quite a few physics (or geography, etc.) teachers with a vested interest in astronomy set up impressive Web sites together with their students, in many cases as part of class work within the curriculum. This shows that they reacted to the opportunity of Hale-Bopp and confirms the importance of providing `professional sites' of high quality from where the students may take over information to be used for teaching purposes. The school sites ranged from pure collection of such information from other, mostly Web-based sources, to very elaborate image collections based on own observations, sometimes with associated scientific evaluation. Again, it is very obvious that for the establishment of these impressive sites, the easy access to information from scientific institutes has been of great value. It should also be noted that in many places, the Hale-Bopp activities served in parallel to introduce young people to efficient use of the Web by means of search machines, etc. This triggering effect was quite obvious in some countries and its importance for the definition of future teaching concepts in schools must not be underestimated.

3. Amateur Societies, Clubs, etc.

Even more comprehensive sites were established by many of the major amateur clubs and societies in individual countries, as well as by planetaria. Some of these sites closely resemble those by professional observatories, and some even exceed them in terms of wealth of information and the speed with which the sites were consistently updated. These must clearly have been major group efforts by dedicated people who spent a significant amount of their free time searching the Web for useful information and then transforming and translating it into their own language.

4. Astronomical Institutes and Organisations

Many observatories realized early the great public interest in Comet Hale-Bopp and set up their own Web sites for this event. These sites mostly served to publish own images and spectra with associated evaluations and to inform about ongoing research at the respective institutions. The lay-out and form of these pages are obviously greatly dependent on the local availability of dedicated students with prior experience on the Web.

5. Archives and News

Various major archives of Hale-Bopp images were created, above all one at Jet Propulsion Laboratory that now contains nearly 5000 individual images, mostly CCD frames obtained by amateurs. Estimated magnitudes and visual descriptions of appearance were published by the IAU Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. In addition, condensed descriptions of the developments were made available on a regular basis in several places, for instance through the Weekly News Bulletins of Sky & Telescope and the Updates at ESO. A few sites by advanced amateurs were also instrumental in preparing comprehensive newsletters.

Most of these sites have substantial lists of links to other sites, allowing easy navigation within the Hale-Bopp WWW world. Overall, the published information consists predominantly of comet images with simple information about the camera and detector used, the telescope and the observing site and time. More interpretative texts are comparatively rare, leaving the impression that the great majority of the public is satisfied with simple viewing and collection of images. It is probably only a minority of the visitors that desires to reach a deeper understanding of these images. Nevertheless, this includes the select group of science journalists, very important visitors indeed.

III. Interactions

There is little doubt that many professional astronomers engaged in Hale-Bopp related research have been supported in their work by having rapid access to information published on the Web by their colleagues in other places. In this context, the Maryland Exploder , which was extremely useful for SL-9 and Hyakutake appears to have been somewhat less used this time, probably because it has become easier to localize the information at its source on the Web.

What concerns the public, there has been a clear development towards increased interaction with (and among) the Hale-Bopp Web site authors. This has mostly occurred in the form of e-mail exchanges about a broad mixture of subjects. ESO received a good share, ranging from very simple questions like "What is a comet?" to "Where can I see the Comet tonight?" and up to the desire to report observations and requests for linking to the sender's own Web site. In response to these questions, several Hale-Bopp sites published elaborate `Frequently Asked Questions' (FAQ's) which often developed into very instructive cometary `tutorials'.

It is gratifying that a large number of school teachers - and many of their students - participated actively in such exchanges. I am sure that the direct interaction between scientists and educators in near-real time has been extremely useful for promoting astronomy in schools all over the world. In addition, it is obvious that an increasingly large number of journalists have begun to rely on information obtained via the Web; during the Hale-Bopp event an amazing number of newcomers from this direction were seen entering the WWW and many of them were apparently quick to home in on sites where recent and reliable information was provided.

It is no surprise, however, that a considerable number of "strange" requests for information were also received. Experience has shown that it is not always easy to reply in a satisfactory way to such messages and that it can be quite time-consuming to enter into a not very fruitful discussion with individuals behind them.

IV. Some Concluding Thoughts

ESO Web statistics 1997

ESO Web 1997 [GIF, 6k] 

Some statistics for the ESO Web site during 1997. The impact of Hale-Bopp in the first months is clearly visible.

It may be no coincidence that three of the most intensive, recent Web events within astronomy have all been linked to comets (the Mars Pathfinder and Galileo being other outstanding examples). The impact of these may be appreciated - as one of many examples available - from the number of hits experienced at the ESO Web site during 1996 and 1997 in which the Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp periods clearly stand out as high peaks more than twice above the normal level. In fact, the Hale-Bopp event probably accounted for about 1/6 of all web hits in ESO in all of the year 1997 (see the figure), even though it was effectively confined to the first few months! As expected the interest dropped rapidly after the perihelion passage on April 1, when the comet became less easy to observe, in particular from the northern hemisphere.

There is no doubt that the science of astronomy and astrophysics is bound to experience similar events of broad public interest in the future. It may thus be of some interest to relate some personal thoughts in this connection.

The Hale-Bopp WWW campaign clearly proved the enormous impact of Web-based activities on the public at all levels. Due to the exceptionally long period of visibility of this comet, great expectations were built up and were in general well satisfied. The media and the public were able to receive valid and current information during the entire period and a large number of persons were obviously introduced for the first time to the Web on this occasion.

The particular functioning of the Web automatically confronts the involved providers of information, professional astronomers as well as amateurs, with some of the problems that are commonly experienced by members of the media. Since whatever you put on the Web is available on a global scale in no time and the multiplying effect is enormous, there should obviously be a great deal of self-restraint and checking built into this process - before the information is let loose. The available Hale-Bopp Web sites show a certain diversity in terms of `reliability' as judged by their scientific content. They are also very different in purely technical terms, from simple ASCII files to the most advanced use of frames, JAVA script, audio and video, etc.

With the great ease of finding information and the possibility to jump instantaneously from one site to another (not unlike TV-zapping from channel to channel), success in terms of conveyance of interesting and useful information can best be ensured by adhering to the highest possible standards of content and format. While a beautifully designed and apparently interesting Web site with sloppy or even misleading information may be counterproductive, a scientifically valuable site presented in a very uninspired format will not draw the attention it deserves from the public (but note that this does of course not apply in the same sense for visiting scientists).

With up to 1 million hits per day or more at the peak, the JPL Hale-Bopp image archive site (with its many outward links) ranked among the most intensively visited Web sites in the world. In comparison, the ESO site which was based much more on text and less on images topped at nearly 5 000 per hour, in late March 1997. Other sites, even small ones, received several thousand per day. With a total of many hundred, maybe more than 1000, individual Hale-Bopp Web sites, the Hale-Bopp Web event may arguably have been one of the greatest `scientific' media Web events of all times.

A final word of caution based on personal experience: the amount of work which must be put into establishing and maintaining a proper Web site for a future astronomical event should not be underestimated! Many visitors react quite negatively when the information at a site is no longer up to date and the result may soon become opposite to what was intended. Most providers of Web sites will agree that because of their `inborn' web proficiency, active involvement of young people in schools (and students at universities) in the preparation of good websites is a great advantage, even a must. On the other hand, the experience of teachers (and senior colleagues) may also be valuable and help by ensuring proper judgment and a consistent level.