Monday, December 18, 2006

The wonders of the internet

I work with computers and on the internet every day, almost exclusively. This is true for most astronomers. So it is rare that I reflect upon how amazing what I am able to do really is. But today was one of those days where it hit me how crucial the internet is to modern astronomy.

When I got to work this morning, I had an email from the observers at the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, located at McDonald Observatory in west Texas. Over the weekend, they had taken some data for me. So, using the internet, I was able to download the data from 800 miles away. Here I had data, and I didn't have to drive 8 hours through the deserts and plains of Texas, nor did I have to stay up all night, nor did I have to worry about the weather. It was almost like magic.

Later this afternoon, I spoke via VoIP (voice over IP, or internet telephone), with a colleague in Australia, where it was Tuesday morning. I had briefly examined the data from the telescope and emailed him the results, and he wanted to chat about it. Even just a few years ago, it would have taken a couple of days to complete this exchange, by the time we sent emails to set up a time for a phone chat. And just 20 years ago the data would have had to travel by airmail. So, in a span of 8 hours, we managed to accomplish what would have taken days or weeks just a few years ago!

Of course, the downside is that people know when I am slacking (or at least they think they know). If I don't respond to email or answer an IM (instant message) though the computer says I am here, people know I am ignoring them. And sometimes a little sequestration away from the world is what I need to get work done, yet I get blamed for slacking. :) So, if you don't see me post for a few days, know that I am working hard to make the world safe for astronomy, even though I may really be playing games away from my desk for a few days.

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