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The Backstory, p. 3

Belize and London
The next location was actually two: a rain forest research station in Belize and The Natural History Museum (NHM) in London, which operates the station. NHM had built its own Webcasting facility and sought us out as collaborators so its staff could learn to use the new facility. As a result, we served as a training group for our colleagues as well as producers of our own material. In turn, NHM provided us with technical support during our London and Belize Webcasts, and offered access to most of the materials and people we needed. We had two separate field crews and alternated Webcasts between the two locations to show the relationship between field and museum research. Using the network news model, we experimented with having live guests from both locations together on the same show—an extreme technical and time-zone challenge.

Production work in a tropical rain forest carries its own set of problems: Rain interrupted the satellite transmission on more than one occasion, and one of our video producers unwittingly played host to a bot fly in Belize, and required treatment at a tropical medicine clinic during the London shoot. We used this hard-won footage in the Webcast studio, projecting a video montage to evoke a forest setting and contrasted it with behind-the-scenes footage from the vast collections of NHM. We also used carefully selected photographs for the Web site, experimenting with a more aesthetic visual and artistic style.

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
After a long search, we chose Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory as the location for stories about DNA and the Human Genome Project. We used the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the double helix to give audiences a behind-the-scenes look at a scientific conference and the kinds of formal talks, informal conversations, and personal stories that emerge when scientists gather. On our Web site, we annotated the paper written by Watson and Crick about their work (published in Nature in 1953), with explanations of the scientific terms and concepts as well as commentary that addressed the controversies and the cultural and scientific context of this groundbreaking discovery. For the Webcast series, we experimented with streaming directly from the conference at Cold Spring Harbor to our Web site rather than connecting with the museum floor. The Webcasts were informal conversations with the pioneers and future stars of molecular biology. Guests were poached from the conference presenters and attendees, and included Jim Watson and other Nobel laureates.


We are just beginning to work on the final Origins Web site, which focuses on astrobiology. We intend to explore both the search for life outside our planet and the origins and extremes of life on earth. We have chosen NASA Ames and a radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico, as our locations, but we’re discovering that the research is focused not just on earth, but on other planets and moons in our solar system and beyond. It will be a challenge to capture the multidisciplinary nature of the field, and to integrate the study of life’s origins on our planet with the search for intelligence in distant worlds.

Final Advice for Our Colleagues
If we had known the full scope of the tasks we were undertaking with the Origins project, we might never have taken it on. It was an ambitious project and a tremendous amount of work, but also an incredible learning experience. We’ve worked hard to keep the experimental process alive, while also revealing the creative nature of scientific exploration to our audience.

During this three-year process, the technology and our audience have grown as much as we have. In the beginning, our productions were a bit like the early days of television. Sometimes the technology failed and we made some embarrassing mistakes, but relatively few people were watching. With increasing use of broadband technology and with more and more people accessing streaming video on the Web, our on-line audience is growing and far exceeds our museum-visiting audience. Even with this expanded audience, the field of Web-mediated informal science education is not yet at the point where failed experiments are intolerable. Our advice to colleagues is to plunge in, invent your own programming style, and reach new audiences worldwide.

—July 2003