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In the '90s, this Eclipse webcast put the cosmos on demand| GuyWhoKnowsThings

On February 26, 1998, hundreds of people gathered to watch a total solar eclipse.

The crowd gasped as the moon devoured the sun. They exclaimed and exclaimed as the feathery currents from the top of the solar atmosphere came into view. Applause erupted moments later as the sun peeked behind the lunar surface.

“Saved again by the laws of celestial mechanics,” said an event presenter in a video recording with scenes from Aruba, one of the places where the eclipse crossed land.

Except that crowd wasn't actually in Aruba. They were thousands of miles away, in San Francisco, grouped in front of a screen in a museum called the Exploratorium. For the first time in Internet history, a solar eclipse was livestreamed. The crowd in the auditorium was not the only remote audience for the eclipse. Potentially, millions of users of the young World Wide Web watched “Eclipse '98,” creating a digital firepower moment years before the public was overwhelmed by viral videos like “Peanut Butter Jelly Time,” “Charlie Bit My Finger,” or “Gangnam Style”. .”

Technology has brought space closer to Earth for decades. The public was amazed when NASA broadcast humanity's first steps on the moon in 1969; Years later, they watched in horror as the space shuttle Challenger exploded on television.

But the rise of the World Wide Web offered a new way to encounter the cosmos. Anyone with a computer, a fast enough Internet modem, and a monitor could participate, on request, in the ethereal sensation of being under the shadow of the moon, something no longer reserved for those who could reach the path of the moon. eclipse.

And just as audiences in the late 19th century were shocked to see moving images projected on screens for the first time, the crowd at the Exploratorium seemed shocked by what they saw on the live broadcast.

“Even remotely, people can have that emotional connection that is so important for an eclipse,” said Robyn Higdon, executive producer of the Exploratorium.

The Aruba webcast reunion scenes depict the peak of the 1990s. There's no shortage of turtlenecks, pixie cuts, and colorful windbreakers in the crowd. The event's hosts put on now-vintage wired headphones and stood next to bulky white computers.

The Internet was just taking off: YouTube wouldn't be founded for another seven years and less than half of Americans were connecting to the Internet, many of them frustrated by slow dial-up speeds. Despite the technological obstacles, the live broadcast of the eclipse, made with the help of NASA and the Discovery Channel, was an effort by the Exploratorium to establish an online presence. Part of the goal was to share what was inside with people who couldn't visit in person, said Rob Semper, the museum's director of learning, who helped launch its website more than 30 years ago.

“But at the same time,” Dr. Semper added, “the network was also a way to attract the outside world.”

What employees didn't expect was how many people their webcast would reach beyond the museum walls. Among the first high-resolution live videos of a solar eclipse, the broadcast was quickly picked up by major news networks. Museum spokespeople say four million viewers tuned in directly online.

Years later, the digital audience for eclipses and other astronomical events has only grown. Online viewership was huge for the 2017 total solar eclipse, which crossed the United States, and by then many organizations besides the Exploratorium were streaming the solar spectacle. NASA broadcast a live show from 12 locations; The Science Channel, which was launched in Oregon, also attracted a large number of views. They both plan to do it again for this year's April 8 eclipse.

“As with many aspects of our lives where the Internet has changed, it's all about accessibility,” said Jeff Hall, a solar astronomer at Lowell Observatory, who narrated portions of a 2017 webcast. Eclipse images have been available since It's been a long time, he added, but “it's another level of experience to be able to see the event unfold in real time.”

The live broadcasts also offer viewers the opportunity to learn about the different cultural beliefs of the places located under the shadow of the moon. Last October, the Exploratorium broadcast the “Ring of Fire” Eclipse from the Valley of the Gods in Utah, where giant red, rocky spiers emanate from the earth. Because the land is sacred to members of the Navajo Nation, the museum partnered with Navajo astronomers who shared traditional knowledge of the cosmos.

Not everyone thinks the Internet is a worthy substitute for real life. “It's a bad way to experience an eclipse,” said Paul Maley, a retired NASA engineer who has seen 83 of them and counting.

Eclipses, Maley explained, are more than meets the eye: During totality, winds change, temperatures drop, and the horizon brightens. “Watching a live stream doesn't provide any of that,” she said.

Patricia Reiff, a physicist at Rice University, somewhat agrees. “Live streaming is great, but it's basically just visual,” she said. “It's like the difference between seeing a photo of the Grand Canyon and canoeing down it.”

Still, Dr. Reiff has established webcasts of some of the solar eclipses he travels to see – so far, 25 of them – and believes that at least part of the experience can be conveyed through the screen. The 1991 solar eclipse is one of the last memories he has with his mother, who watched a television broadcast of the event while Dr. Reiff watched it in Mexico.

“It was a moment we shared, even though we were very far from each other,” he said.

Beyond live broadcasts, the Internet has greatly expanded the reach of eclipse information, including locations, safe viewing practices and Weather forecast, for the public. Eclipse chasers use it as a tool to connect with each other, organize trips, and describe the visceral reactions they have to totality. The researchers even social networks analyzed eclipse activity in 2017 to study the tourism trends it drove in rural communities.

In April, the Exploratorium will be Do it again, this time with production teams in Texas and Mexico to broadcast the last solar eclipse that will affect the continental United States for 20 years. They will present programs in both English and Spanish, and will also provide what Larry Kenworthy, technical director of the museum's eclipse expeditions, calls “the nerd broadcast”: a three-hour broadcast for organizations to use at their own eclipse parties. observation, or for those online who want to immerse themselves solely in the views.

Dr. Hall, who will host a live show on the Science Channel on April 8, hopes these online broadcasts will ultimately inspire viewers to one day see an eclipse in real life.

“Put it on the bucket list to go see one sometime,” he said. “Because as cool as the Internet is, you can't replicate the experience of actually being on the path of totality.”

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