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Around the Mall & Beyond

The Smithsonian, the world's largest museum and research complex, has yet another address: the World Wide Web

My simple click had told my computer to search the files of a computer in Hiroshima, Japan, the site of the A-Bomb WWW Museum, a virtual museum that exists only on the World Wide Web, only on screens and in minds.

There is so much to see in the virtual Smithsonian, the Smithsonian Without Walls, that I don't know where to start. Perhaps at the Encyclopedia Smithsonian, in which I can find a complete history (and photograph) of Cher Ami, the heroic World War I carrier pigeon, or the Foucault Pendulum or the Hope Diamond, information based on questions frequently asked in the museums.

Now I've clicked on the gem and mineral collection of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), and I've just had a look at a remarkably clear image of Marie Antoinette's earrings and a wonderful double-exposure of the ceremonial Smithsonian Mace. Here's Smithsonian magazine's home page, where our 25th-anniversary logo offers me a choice of stories on science, history, the arts and, good grief, the Around the Mall column.

With further clicking I've found the Division of Fishes' award-winning home page, where I can get a quick read on what kind of research each of our ichthyologists is pursuing. Here I've found a list of discussion groups I can subscribe to. I can even eavesdrop — but I won't — on the discussions of mammalian biology or crustacean systematics, distribution and ecology.

Now my computer is showing me how the conversion of the Smithsonian's Multiple Mirror Telescope, located near Tucson, Arizona, is proceeding this summer. There's a video camera at the summit of Mount Hopkins trained on the MMT building, and a new image is grabbed every 30 seconds. I can see that the chamber doors have been removed to make room for the installation of the new 6.5-meter mirror.

But I have my own project: I want to look at the Ocean Planet exhibit at NMNH, first the virtual version and then for real.

I click on the words "Ocean Planet Online" on the general menu of offerings from NMNH and I get a layout of the rooms of the exhibit, a traveling show that opened in April. Clicking on the room labeled "Immersion" brings up a pretty logo and a short burst of words. "In ways we may never have even imagined," the screen tells me, "we're all seafarers. After thousands of years of seafaring, we're only beginning to fathom the workings of our watery planet."

I can click on a montage of seagulls, buoys, boats and fish to hear the sounds of waves, the call of the birds, the buoy bells and so on. But that's merely a frill. Clicking my way along from room to room, I visit the sections on ocean science, sea people, the sea store, oceans in peril, heroes and others.

Invited to go deeper by choosing from a list of subsections, I pick "El Niño" and get another map and still more information and yet another list of even more in-depth subjects including "El Niño and the Southern Oscillation: A Reversal of Fortune," which happens to be a master's thesis by Kimberly Amaral.

El Nino, I read, is a mysterious wind shift in the Pacific that occurs every two to seven years around November or December (hence the name "Niño," "the Christ Child"), when the westerly trade winds subside and allow the warm water they have been pushing to the west to flow back into the eastern Pacific. Everywhere, things go crazy. Fish, robbed of nutrient-rich cool water, die. There are droughts in Australia, Southern Africa and India; cyclones in Tahiti; mud slides in Colorado; floods in Peru.

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