What made me cry: Microsoft’s World Wide Telescope

Lots of people are asking me questions about what made me cry at Microsoft a few weeks ago.

If I told you “a telescope” you’d make fun of me, right? Tell me I’m lame and that I don’t deserve to be a geek and that I should run away and join the circus, right?

Well, that’s what I saw.

Or, more accurately, the WorldWide Telescope.

UPDATE: the official site is now up.

Like I said, sounds lame. How could that possibly be the most fabulous thing I’ve seen Microsoft do in years? And that’s not just me talking. My friends who’ve seen it say that I actually underhyped it. That’s the first time anyone has said I underhyped something when I was trying to be so over-the-top with hype.

Like I said, it isn’t the product that’s impressive. You’ve gotta see this thing to really understand. My video will be up on Monday.

But, I’ll try to give you an idea of what made me so impressed.

Think of Google Maps or Microsoft’s Live Maps. How dragging a map around lets you see the world in a new way. Zoom in. Zoom out. You have the whole world in a window on your screen.

Now, think of the sky.

When Brian Cox, physicist at CERN, spoke at LIFT last year he told us to hold our hands out, put our thumb up and realize there are hundreds of thousands of stars in just that small patch of sky.

Now you’ve probably looked at imagery from the Hubble Telescope. So you know there are entire galaxies out there. But what are you missing?

Context.

In other words, you have no idea where in the sky those things you see in Sky and Telescope magazine are. You’re missing context.

So, back to the World Wide Telescope. You drag around the sky. There’s Mars. There’s the big dipper. There’s Betelguese. Etc. It’s just like the star party you probably attended in college.

But it has one difference between any telescope you’ve ever looked at.

You can zoom. Zoom. Zoom. Zoom.

We picked a point of light inside the big dipper. Zoom. Zoom. Zoom. Zoom. Holy shit, it’s two galaxies colliding. It looked like a star. Zoom. Zoom. Zoom.

Now the magic happened.

Curtis Wong said: “let’s switch to a different telescope and see what these two galaxies colliding are spitting out.”

He clicked a button and we saw a completely different view of the same colliding galaxies. This time we weren’t looking at visible light, but at something else. I think it might have been infrared, or maybe a look at other kinds of radiation being kicked out. He had about 10 of the world’s telescopes to look at. I forget all the names, but that detail is in the video coming on Monday.

Zoom out. Zoom out. Zoom out. Zoom out. Pan over to Mars. What a glorious view. You’ve never seen Mars like that through your $2,000 Celestron Telescope.

Oh, you have one of those nice Celestron telescopes with the motorized base? Click a button and your telescope points to what you’re looking at in this piece of software.

And there’s a ton more, the demo just goes on and on and on.

Some other things.

1. It’s dedicated to Jim Gray, the Microsoft Researcher who sailed out of San Francisco Bay about a year ago never to be heard from again. He started this project with a paper back in 2002.
2. It runs only on Windows. It’s coded in C#/.NET, you’ll meet the developer in our video and you’ll hear more about that then.
3. It’s free, but only in a private alpha right now. I’m not sure when it’ll be released to the public. I bet that we’ll find that out at Microsoft’s Tech Fest next week (TechCrunch and other bloggers are going to that, so Im sure we’ll hear lots more details on the other cool stuff Microsoft Research is doing).
4. There are terabytes of data, all seamlessly integrated for the first time here.
5. There are narrations and tours. I believe you can even add your own, so you can leave a little tour for your kids to see the sky in a new way.
6. Mike Arrington and Dan Farber figured it out first.

So, why cry over a telescope?

Because I just saw the world I live in, er, excuse me, the universe I live in in a new way that I never had imagined before.

I cried because I imagined all the kids, like my sons, who will be inspired by what they see. It took me back to the days when John Kennedy wanted us to go to the moon. Hint: there’s a lot more out there to explore.

I cried because I realized just how much work, money, and all that went into making these images. I never had access to them before. Certainly not in this way so I could compare them by clicking a button. As a taxpayer who’s helped pay for some of these telescopes it’s the first time I’ve seen the results of my and your, investments in our scientific research.

It’s human to look out at the sky and wonder what’s going on out there. This takes us a LOT further into our understanding of just what is.

And,, yes, that’s worth crying some inspirational tears. Thank you to Microsoft Research for inspiring me in a way that Microsoft hasn’t inspired me in years.

And, also, sorry to the teams that I caused some PR troubles for. I hope you’ll forgive me for getting a little excited. I couldn’t contain myself. It isn’t everyday that you get to see such an inspiring piece of software.

363 thoughts on “What made me cry: Microsoft’s World Wide Telescope

  1. WWT is absolutely fantastic. I think what people are missing is it puts the data into the hands of everyone – even the scientific FITS images can be pulled down without having to know apis/integrations or which website to go to at what time of day and whom to request them from.

    As an amateur astronomer having a tool like this for free has finally put the universe into the hands of many more people. I hope the scope manufacturers quickly embrace it as a tool to not only allow scope controls but integrate their learning, training and user experiences into it so people can share them.

    Google sky doesn’t compare, doesn’t have the astronomy, astrometry, photometry or science aspect to allow one to do research and publish research and access everyone elses research at the same time.

    People are terrible naive about the functionality of this app. TERRIBLY.

  2. WWT is absolutely fantastic. I think what people are missing is it puts the data into the hands of everyone – even the scientific FITS images can be pulled down without having to know apis/integrations or which website to go to at what time of day and whom to request them from.

    As an amateur astronomer having a tool like this for free has finally put the universe into the hands of many more people. I hope the scope manufacturers quickly embrace it as a tool to not only allow scope controls but integrate their learning, training and user experiences into it so people can share them.

    Google sky doesn’t compare, doesn’t have the astronomy, astrometry, photometry or science aspect to allow one to do research and publish research and access everyone elses research at the same time.

    People are terrible naive about the functionality of this app. TERRIBLY.

  3. I cry too because ms make things that look “beautiful” and then do sweet fuckall. Yay. For once, a complete product would be nice. Feel free to start with XP and move on to everything else. Notepad is ok.

  4. I cry too because ms make things that look “beautiful” and then do sweet fuckall. Yay. For once, a complete product would be nice. Feel free to start with XP and move on to everything else. Notepad is ok.

  5. Muy Interesante que tengo que hacer para obtener el programa y poder utilisar este telescopio

  6. Muy Interesante que tengo que hacer para obtener el programa y poder utilisar este telescopio

  7. Trust me, you don’t see what Nasa see’s. That resolution of the moon is a slam dunk for me. Although I’m sure the unaware are sufficiently lulled.

  8. Trust me, you don’t see what Nasa see’s. That resolution of the moon is a slam dunk for me. Although I’m sure the unaware are sufficiently lulled.

  9. Try Slooh.com…….much better. It’s not free like this one is, but it’s also LVE images, not archived from other scopes. And for the price ($100/year unlimited usage), it’s an unbeatable telescope investment. Trust me, I know. I’ve been an astronomer for almost 25 years & thr latest scope that I bought cost 10X as much as Slooh & isn’t NEAR what Slooh offers. The same set-up would have run me about 15,000-20,000 $$$.

    Best part too is that you can control the scopes PERSONALLY & tell them what you want to look at, then snap pics. Second best part is that you getcontrol of MULTIPLE scopes withthe yearly unlimited package. Right now we have 2 off the coast of Africa. An observatory has been rented already in Australia & the scope will be added soon. And there’s 1 more, soon to be 2, getting ready to come on-line in Chile.

  10. Try Slooh.com…….much better. It’s not free like this one is, but it’s also LVE images, not archived from other scopes. And for the price ($100/year unlimited usage), it’s an unbeatable telescope investment. Trust me, I know. I’ve been an astronomer for almost 25 years & thr latest scope that I bought cost 10X as much as Slooh & isn’t NEAR what Slooh offers. The same set-up would have run me about 15,000-20,000 $$$.

    Best part too is that you can control the scopes PERSONALLY & tell them what you want to look at, then snap pics. Second best part is that you getcontrol of MULTIPLE scopes withthe yearly unlimited package. Right now we have 2 off the coast of Africa. An observatory has been rented already in Australia & the scope will be added soon. And there’s 1 more, soon to be 2, getting ready to come on-line in Chile.

  11. What a joke. Typical Microsoft Hype. Once everyone has it downloaded I’m sure they will start charging for it as usual. Very poor resolution. We are only 250,000 miles from the moon and in planet view that is the best they can do ? Google would let us look at all the debris we left in the Sea of Tranquility. The resolution of Earth isn’t 1/100th as good as Google Earth. I am not impressed at all…..Thanks for nothing Bill !!

  12. What a joke. Typical Microsoft Hype. Once everyone has it downloaded I’m sure they will start charging for it as usual. Very poor resolution. We are only 250,000 miles from the moon and in planet view that is the best they can do ? Google would let us look at all the debris we left in the Sea of Tranquility. The resolution of Earth isn’t 1/100th as good as Google Earth. I am not impressed at all…..Thanks for nothing Bill !!

  13. What makes me cry are all the wintards that think Microsoft is capable of anything but monopolistic business, stealing, ripping-off other’s work, etc…

    Windoze only? You’re kidding, right? Where is the pathetic version for ‘other platforms’ (as if more than one survived them?) As if anyone in their right mind ever used I.E. in the first place, let alone now.

    There is absolutely no reason for this to be windows only. It is yet another instance of Microsoft taking (from the likes of NASA this time) and using it to push their monopoly.

  14. What makes me cry are all the wintards that think Microsoft is capable of anything but monopolistic business, stealing, ripping-off other’s work, etc…

    Windoze only? You’re kidding, right? Where is the pathetic version for ‘other platforms’ (as if more than one survived them?) As if anyone in their right mind ever used I.E. in the first place, let alone now.

    There is absolutely no reason for this to be windows only. It is yet another instance of Microsoft taking (from the likes of NASA this time) and using it to push their monopoly.

  15. Both Microsoft World Wide Telescope and Google Sky are possible by a running international effort, the International Virtual Observatory Alliance (www.ivoa.net). What Microsoft and Google have done is build massive multi-resolution caches of that data, so that wide sky queries are handled by the wide-angle cache, and the narrower queries are handled by the services themselves.

    The good thing is that these visualization tools are very good in themselves for diffusion and vulgarisation, while scientific tools such as the Aladin Sky Atlas (http://aladin.u-strasbg.fr/) also become available to anyone… with data accesible by everyone.

  16. Both Microsoft World Wide Telescope and Google Sky are possible by a running international effort, the International Virtual Observatory Alliance (www.ivoa.net). What Microsoft and Google have done is build massive multi-resolution caches of that data, so that wide sky queries are handled by the wide-angle cache, and the narrower queries are handled by the services themselves.

    The good thing is that these visualization tools are very good in themselves for diffusion and vulgarisation, while scientific tools such as the Aladin Sky Atlas (http://aladin.u-strasbg.fr/) also become available to anyone… with data accesible by everyone.

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