Backstory, p. 2
Mastering communications technologies
was a big challenge. We had a limited budget, so usually we
couldn’t afford to use commercial broadcast satellites
to connect the museum and on-line audiences to the research
locations. Instead, we used two-way video conferencing, satellite
phones, and other off-the-shelf communications equipment. We
used emerging media technologies when they provided us with
new tools; unfortunately, they were frequently full of bugs
and had incomplete documentation. Often, we found ourselves
working with prototype technology, some of which was later adopted
by war journalists in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Virtual Field Trips
It was very important to remain flexible.
For example, exploring particle physics at CERN meant working
with one of the most complex, esoteric subjects in science.
That doesn’t lend itself easily to visual explanations.
Few people know what subatomic particles are, and the particles
are impossible to see directly. We chose to tell this story
through the people conducting and supporting the research, and
through the complex and enormous tools used to investigate minute,
elusive bits of matter. We developed an organizing strategy
of people, place, tools, and ideas, which carried through the
entire project. A year after we launched this site, we returned
to CERN with an Exploratorium senior artist to develop "Visting
CERN." This section of the site experiments with a striking
visual style that combines evocative photographs and original
interviews to tell stories about CERN’s history and culture.
For the Hubble Space Telescope location,
we knew that stunning images were readily available, so we experimented
with a narrative Webcast series that evolved across episodes.
This series explores how scientists compete for time on the
telescope, gather data, and analyze the results to create the
telescope’s famous full-color pictures of distant galaxies
and exploding stars. We also did warm-up shows for our studio
audience to introduce the basic science used in the telescope
operations. We ended the Hubble series with what we were sure
would be a triumph, conducting the first-ever live Webcast inside
the giant clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center,
where new technology for the space telescope was being assembled
and tested. However, the Webcast crew and scientists were dressed
in protective "bunny suits," making it difficult for
the audience to connect with the people wearing them.
Antarctica presented an endurance challenge
for both the location crew and the home team. Because of the
time and commitment involved in preparing and traveling to Antarctica,
we stayed for six weeks and conducted live shows five days a
week. We created and staffed an activity center in the museum’s
Webcast studio, which included large photographs, an exhibit
on ice formation, and a full set of extreme cold-weather gear
that kids could try on. Before each Webcast, studio hosts did
a preshow that answered basic questions, such as: How cold is
it? Have you seen any penguins? How do you go to the bathroom?
With those questions answered, the field crew focused on the
science at hand: how organisms adapt to a harsh climate, why
the South Pole is a great place for astronomy, and the mechanics
of a polar volcano that erupts daily. Besides the long absence
from home, the Antarctic crew dealt with frequent technology
meltdowns, especially at the South Pole. With only a few hours
of satellite time available each day, there were often dropouts
and fuzzy transmissions. The studio hosts covered, explaining
how tricky it was to get a signal from the bottom of the world
to San Francisco and the audience seemed forgiving.