ORNL Helps Develop Electronic Notebooks

January 08, 1997

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., Jan. 7, 1997 --Scientists traditionally use paper notebooks to keep track of their experimental ideas, notes on experimental setups, observations, and research results. These notebooks are kept on book shelves or in file cabinets.

Is there a better alternative? Yes, says Al Geist of the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). He recommends the recordkeeping tool of the imminent future-the electronic notebook. A notebook accessed by computer offers scientists all the features of the traditional paper notebook, along with the capability to accept multimedia input (audio and video clips) and computer-generated images, tables, and graphs placed by drag-'n-drop.

Geist and Noel Nachtigal, researchers in ORNL's Computer Science and Mathematics Division, have developed a prototype for an electronic notebook that is being used by a dozen different groups around the country.

"Right now," Geist says, "the biggest obstacle is the legal acceptance of the electronic notebook. Once this happens, electronic notebooks will soar in popularity-not only for collaborating groups but also for private users. Everything is computerized today. Why manually copy documentation into a paper notebook when you can cut and paste it electronically?"

An electronic notebook is a repository for objects that document scientific research. It can be used to enter, retrieve, or query objects such as text, sketches, images, tables, and graphs.

"Electronic notebooks are not calculators, nor are they chat spaces," Geist explains. "They hold a static record of ideas, experiments, and results."

Electronic notebooks have many advantages over paper notebooks. "They can be shared by researchers, even those collaborators separated by distance," Geist says. "They can be accessed remotely through the Internet. They can't be lost or destroyed.

"It is easy to incorporate not only computer files and experimental data but also multimedia into an electronic notebook. It can easily be searched for information. It can contain hyperlinks to other information, such as a reference paper stored elsewhere on the Internet."

ORNL is collaborating with researchers from DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) to design a common notebook architecture that will allow interoperation of the different groups' notebooks.

"What that means," Geist explains, "is that I could use ORNL's notebook interface to view entries that were written by my friend at PNNL using his own notebook. Also, we could share input tools we each develop."

A demonstration version of ORNL's notebook is available on the Internet's World Wide Web (http://www.epm.ornl.gov/~geist/java/applets/enote). It can be accessed by any authorized user from any type of computer (platform) that has a Web browser.

In developing the Web-based electronic notebook architecture, the ORNL researchers are focusing on ensuring the security of the notebook. Electronic notebook entries can be digitally authenticated and signed, individually or collectively. They can be electronically time stamped and notarized. While entries cannot be modified once signed, the pages can be annotated and forward referenced. Entries can be secured by encryption, both in transit and in storage. All these securities can be performed transparently to the users, thus adding no complexity to the user interface.

The ORNL prototype uses Common Gateway Interface scripts to access notebook pages. The researchers are developing Java applets (mini-programs written in the Java programming language developed by Sun Microsystems) to enter objects in the notebook, such as a pen-based sketch pad.

The research was initially supported by ORNL's internal Laboratory Directed Research and Development Program. Funding now comes from DOE's Mathematical, Information, and Computational Sciences Division.

Geist has previously received recognition for his work in helping to develop parallel virtual machine (PVM) software, which allows a network of computers to work together to solve a single complex problem. He also helped develop CUMULVS software so that scientists at different sites could view a simulation in progress and change the parameters to improve the results (e.g., synthesis of a material that has particular properties). His ideas for improvements of these developments and for future projects are recorded in his electronic notebook.

ORNL, one of the Department of Energy's multiprogram national research and development facilities, is managed by Lockheed Martin Energy Research Corp.

DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory
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