Wednesday, October 21, 2009

I can stop posting about APOD any time I want. Really.

Here's a cheesy analogy: In astronomy, studying an object gives you a chance not just to look through space, but through time, even to near the beginnings of the known universe. Searching through the Astronomy Picture of the Day archives likewise gives a glimpse back in time, if not to the very beginning then to an earlier, more primitive web.

I said it was cheesy.

Nonetheless, looking at the first few months of the archive gives some idea of the changes both in astronomy and in the web over the past 14 years or so:
  • The early pictures are all GIFs, generally with either conspicuous dithering or a small color palette (like the very first picture). Broadband? What's that?
  • Many of the early pictures were old even when they were posted. Early NASA is well represented, including the Voyager probes and even Skylab.
  • The sources are generally well-known institutions. There is little if any contribution from individuals.
  • The prose is plainer and there are many fewer links. Some recent APOD entries seem almost to have more links than plain text.
  • The next/previous links, now standard in just about any slide show site, didn't come along until later [November 11, 1996 to be precise. JPEGs start to show up a bit before that].
  • There's a reference to something called a "WWW page" and one to a "node" along with the now-standard "web page" and "web site" [There are also references to images available "over the WWW"]
  • Besides being presented in higher resolution, recent images are much more detailed to begin with. In 1990, this was a "premier view" of the center of our galaxy. Three years later, observations began that eventually traced the orbits of individual stars there.
None of the changes is particularly dramatic, but taken together they give the older entries a significantly clunkier feel. Today's APOD is sharper, faster, better connected and more interactive than the mid-90s version. All of these changes reflect large-scale web trends, and all of them make for a more informative and enjoyable site.

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