Encyclopedia Galactica

Rick Trebino, Georgia Research Alliance-Eminent Scholar Chair of Ultrafast Optical Physics, Georgia Institute of Technology

Helena Mitchell, Georgia Research Alliance-Eminent Scholar Chair of Distance Learning, Clark University and Georgia Institute of Technology

R. John Koshel, Breault Research Organization

As technology advances and the world wide web enters every home, the amount of information available to us has become staggering. Anyone and everyone seems to be writing web pages, on every possible topic. And it seems that anyone can find any piece of information if he simply searches hard enough.

But are we really learning anything?

The problem is that most of the information is commercial, with the intention, not to teach us something, but to sell us something. And even if the massive collection of facts, factals, and factoids available on the web were all true, they represent a highly disorganized mass of information. Each morsel of information exists unto itself with little or no context. And no effort is made to teach concepts.

The unfortunate fact is that the web is a purveyor of information, not knowledge.

What can be done to utilize the web to present, not a disorganized source of mere information as it now does, but instead an organized source of useful knowledge? There are already numerous educational web sites. Organizations such as American Association for the Advancement of Science have on file listings of many educational—not commercial—web sites, which are legitimate efforts to teach—not sell—and are excellent sources of knowledge, not mere information. Unfortunately, these sites span only a small fraction of the space of knowledge. And many are offered by commercial institutions requiring a large fee to use them.

But imagine a much larger set of such educational sites—the collected work of the entire education and scientific communities—that together do span this large space of knowledge. And imagine links between related sites. A search on the word, “rainbow,” for example, would yield a page with a full-color picture-laden description of the rainbow, with options to link to more advanced or less advanced descriptions of this phenomenon and to related topics. Choosing, say, the link to a more advanced page would give another such attractive description of the rainbow, but, say, with equations now to explain the concept of the rainbow to a more sophisticated viewer. This page would again contain many links to more advanced, less advanced, and related sites. Choosing a link to another related topic might take the viewer to, say, “light scattering,” the physical phenomenon behind the rainbow. This process would continue as long as the viewer had time. All sites would be similarly linked to other educational sites. The ability to perform such upward, downward, or lateral searching would virtually guarantee an interesting path through knowledge cyberspace that best matches the needs of the user and would teach concepts, not merely provide information.

Now imagine, a clearinghouse that collects, links, updates, and thus evolves over time its database of knowledge. The links provide ways to learn about associated topics (e.g., the connection between rainbows and prisms) or look at simplified or advanced descriptions.

We call this massive database “Encyclopedia Galactica,” after the massive encyclopedia of all knowledge imagined by Issac Asimov in his famous science fiction trilogy “Foundation,” where it was developed to save a great future galactic empire from falling into millennia of chaos. [Isaac Asimov, “Foundation,” “Foundation and Empire,” and “Second Foundation,” Doubleday, New York, 1952]

In a sense, our Encyclopedia Galactica would be analogous to the many portal sites that have blossomed in the commercial sector, but with education, not sales, as its goal, and with much more interlinking between the various sites. The Encyclopedia Galactica would bring together and crosslink educational sites that describe knowledge ranging from cutting-edge research to simple demonstrations at the kindergarten level.

The Encyclopedia Galactica would be a vast world wide web devoted to education, to the teaching of concepts, and to the dissemination of knowledge. It would operate in parallel with the current commercial world wide web, using the same technology, benefiting from the advances made to the commercial web, and even using the same hardware. It would be distributed over many computers, just as the commercial web is. And it would be accessible to everyone.

Of course, the logistics to develop such a web will be grand. First, the sites must be created. Fortunately, with commercial software, web-site creation is easy, and students and teachers would participate in—indeed dominate—the process. Second, the sites must be entered into the web, and a search engine made available that would take into account the desired topic and level and perhaps even previous searches of the user. Third, as more locations are added (and others disappear), links must evolve providing the most reasonable interconnections between all sites. And fourth, as sophisticated new telecommunications technology is developed by the commercial web for its use, it will bring the Encyclopedia Galactica to the user more rapidly, reliably, and beautifully.

Of course, we must ensure the veracity of sites. As a result, an organization of scholars would be necessary to oversee the Encyclopedia Galactica and be charged with the task of sifting through the submitted pages.

Pages would be submitted by anyone, and the majority of pages would be expected from professors and teachers from schools and universities around the world. These individuals already spend a great deal of their time producing educational materials for their courses. Previously, they simply developed notes and lectured at a blackboard using a simple piece of chalk—an inefficient process that was repeated each year. Times have changed, however, and lecturers now use sophisticated new graphics and presentation hardware and software. Now, classroom computer graphics are created the first year a class is taught and they are continually improved in each successive year by the same teacher or another. Once educational materials are created, they are not forgotten, but instead are stored in computer memory. Why not make them available for everyone? This is the Encyclopedia Galactica.

Indeed, teachers could assign their students the task of creating improved educational pages. Students are often more computer-literate than their teachers, even having their own personal web pages. Perhaps students could occasionally be assigned the eminently more enjoyable task of creating a new educational web page instead of a dreaded term paper! The act of creating such a page will be a dramatically more educational and exciting experience for students.

The magnitude of the task ahead is clearly of the scale of the Manhattan Project, but it would be performed, not by an isolated group of scientists in a remote region of the wilderness, but rather by everyone everywhere, from students to teachers to professors.

John F. Kennedy asked Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” While everyone admires Kennedy greatly for this remark, no one ever seems to have followed up on it. The Encyclopedia Galactica is such a project, and, fortunately, it will be fun!

Imagine the benefits of such an all-encompassing educational tool. Anyone anywhere could, not merely find information, but learn anything, from kindergarten level to research level and in fields ranging from anthropology to zoology. Perhaps such a tool could assist or even partially supplant classroom lectures, freeing up teacher and professorial time for one-on-one interactions with students or research. In addition, poor children, far removed from highly funded school districts, would have the same access to an education that the richest students would have, simply by owning a computer and a telephone. Adults would painlessly and inexpensively continue their education without the need for signing up for and taking classes, a large barrier. And oppressed people around the world could have access to an education free of propaganda.

We believe that the Encyclopedia Galactica is the next big step in the internet revolution. The commercial web already has momentum; the invisible hand of capitalism is already driving it and will continue to do so. But an educational web will not happen by itself. It must be guided by a forward-looking and encouraging government. It is a huge project, requiring billions of man-hours over many years. Once its imagination is stimulated, however, the public will make it happen. The education community already spends billions of man-hours each year educating the next generation—but inefficiently. If only a fraction of this time were diverted to the Encyclopedia Galactica (and the results of this time would also be immediately useful in that year’s educational process), it could happen in only a few years. Fortunately, as a result, the Encyclopedia Galactica will not be expensive. It simply requires the appropriate nudge and guidance from above, and then it will happen, and we will all be far better off for it. Once it is established in cyber memory, it will always be there for future generations.