Low-Bandwidth Communication Tools for Science
ScientificTalk (see logo in Figure 2) is a profession-specific prototype tool for scientists, students and teachers to exchange information via a web browser, using a display of math equations in a synchronous manner. The project focus is on users' interests in such things as mathematics and scientific notation. Our motivation follows an early goal for the Web to be a readable and writable collaborative medium.
Unfortunately, the large tag repertoire of the HTML 4.0 language does not cater to mathematics, since they cannot mark up complex mathematical expressions. Usually, to create technical documents with mathematical or scientific content, web authors resort to methods involving images (e.g., screen captures of equations), which means the sharing of scholastic and scientific material by lecturers, students, etc. is often a many-step process. There are a few available applets and plug-ins that can render MathML in a browser (which are not necessarily designed for synchronous collaboration).
The Mathematical Markup Language, MathML, is a recommendation of the W3C, which provides a foundation for including mathematical expressions in web pages. As an application of the Extensible Markup Language (XML) and with adequate style-sheet support, MathML will ultimately make it possible for browsers to natively render math expressions, including threaded on-line discussions. (Some applets and plug-ins are currently available, which can render MathML in a browser.) See W3C at http://www.w3.org/Math/ for a complete list of technical/scientific document viewers and renderers such as the Scientific MessageBoard WebEQ, the IBM techexplorer, EzMath editor and LaTex2HTML.
ScientificTalk is a Perl script for a standard multiway graphical web chat. This CGI-based application is portable across platforms and allows the viewing of occupants, sending input to specific users, etc. While chatting on-line, it converts textual input or standard LaTeX—a popular computer language for composing formatted scientific text for high-quality printing—into HTML. The math displayed on the browser is rich because of the LaTeX typesetting and Ian Hutchinson's powerful TeX-to-HTML translator, tth, available at http://hutchinson.belmont.ma.us/tth/.
For those not familiar with LaTeX commands, ScientificTalk has an external symbols keyboard as well as a composer and messenger window for the user input. There is no need for extra plug-ins or high-speed networks—all input is passed via text-mode only. On the client side, Netscape (v4.0 or greater) needs a simple character-set configuration (for details and demo, connect to http://sv7.ictp.trieste.it/.
Although the ScientificTalk prototype has proven that it is possible to carry out synchronous math discussions on the Web between distant clients today, our to-do list is still long. For example, it would be useful to save a complete session as a LaTeX file (in order to restart an on-line discussion from a given session or collaboratively write LaTeX documents on the Web), display plots from a given function, create small transparent .gif files, and extend its language capabilities to symbols in other domains, such as chemistry.
More opportunities for learning and growth are available if we can shar ideas via a computer environment that is responsive to our professional needs. For example, using simplified scientific notation on the Web can lead to faster, more effective results. Electronic tools, designed for collaboration and based on Linux, will continue to play an important role in an increasingly interconnected world. Off-line browsing via web-to-e-mail servers such as www4mail is still a reality from remote areas of the world, and most likely will remain so, as the number of Internet users is expected to double to 300 million by the year 2005.
Dr. Enrique Canessa (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a theoretical physicist currently working as a scientific consultant at the ICTP. His main areas of research and interest are in the field of condensed matter and scientific software applications. He has been lost in the Internet since 1987.