Saturday, February 15, 2014

Black Hole Research is One Key Reason You Have a Web Browser




Today, astrophysicist Larry Smarr (U of California, San Diego) received the "Golden Goose Award" at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The award was conceived to honor scientific research which seems, at first, to have little practical value, but turns out to have a major effect on human life or society. 

(The Golden Goose Award is meant to contrast with the old "Golden Fleece" award, which a former Senator used to give out willy nilly to research he couldn't understand or appreciate.)

In the 1980's, Dr. Smarr and his group were investigating black holes, places where the complete collapse of a dying star has created a warp in the fabric of space and time. Such bizarre star corpses were predicted by Einstein's general theory of relativity, but only reliably discovered in the 1970's. Calculating exactly how the messy collapse of one spinning star (or the collision of two black holes) would affect and change space and time nearby was a real challenge, and required the use of far bigger supercomputers than were available to academics like Smarr at the time.

Dr. Smarr proposed to the National Science Foundation that the US should create a civilian center for super-computing to crack really hard problems like his. When the center was created (at the University of Illinois), Smarr became its director. With really good computers, scientists needed software to take best advantage of them. Two members of his software team (Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina) created a piece of software in 1993 called MOSAIC, which was an easy-to-use way of searching and communicating with the world wide web.

MOSAIC was the first web browser and the browsers you now use to read my Facebook post are its descendants (and still use many of its features.) It was only when browsers made it easy for the average person to get involved with the Web that the Web took off and the personal computer revolution began its modern acceleration. And to think it wouldn't have happened if an astrophysicist hadn't been itching to know the details of the neighborhood of a black hole or two.


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