THE electronic ``information highway'' showed its potential for creating an instant global community when Jupiter met the comet. Professional and amateur astronomers - and interested bystanders - communed through a hodgepodge of information networks loosely linked in that electronic confederation called the Internet.
University of Arizona astronomer Mark Sykes flashed a message urging fellow astronomers to help the public observe the dramatic events for themselves. And help they did. The European Southern Observatory (ESO) information service in Garching, Germany, said that ``a new kind of observational astronomy has emerged'' with professionals, skilled amateurs, and novices cooperating to make the most of a unique opportunity.
Stephen Maran, a spokesman for the American Astronomical Society, noted that professional astronomers have coordinated their work by e-mail before. ``What's new about this is the enormous and generous manner in which professionals are sharing their data,'' he explained.
A novice struggling with a new telescope had only to post an e-mail message to get expert advice. An observer at a major telescope trying to locate a particular impact site on Jupiter might get guidance from an amateur half a world away. Everyone enjoyed and worked with the images of Jovian impacts flowing from observatories all over the world. Some of the most dramatic images came from the University of Chicago's Infrared Explorer telescope at the South Pole. When the ESO in Garching reported that ``the telescope was heroically cleaned of accumulated snow'' by two men who went out in strong wind and minus 60 degree C temperature, there was a global sense of gratitude.
The net result of all this interaction was emergence of a dense observing network covering the globe. It included instruments ranging from 10-centimeter backyard telescopes to the mighty 10-meter Keck installation on Mount Mauna Kea in Hawaii, the newest and largest optical telescope on Earth.
To aid the information exchange, some centers acted as mail ``exploders.'' They flashed messages and images they received to a long list of recipients. Some other centers gathered e-mail from many observers and posted summary bulletins and contributed to image data banks. These resources rapidly became available to anyone who could access a relevant information service, including internationally available commercial services.
At its peak, the information flow was almost overwhelming. The ESO in Garching, a major data gatherer, reported: ``A true barrage of e-mail messages about new results arrive [sic] from all corners of the globe and sometimes the pace of events is simply breathtaking.'' It was almost as though a new kind of organism called ``global observatory'' had arisen, complete with telescopic senses and an electronic nervous system.
For news reporters, there was no obvious center of action for covering the Jovian drama. Some went to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., where Hubble telescope images first arrived and daily press conferences were held. Others went to Garching where the ESO also held daily briefings. But much of the information came to these centers by e-mail. The place to watch the real action was in the so-called cyberspace of the electronic-information cosmos. A reporter could tap into that from almost anywhere.
Prophets of the ``information highway'' tout the benefits of global access to the world's libraries and databanks. That may indeed transform the way students study and professionals in many fields go about their work.