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Interview by Michael O'Neill:
Astro Newbie Competes for Webby

*   A dyslexic ophthalmology technician finds himself in the company of scientific heavy hitters as a nominee for the best science website in the "Oscars of the internet." By Michael O'Neill.  May 8, 2006 | 2:00 AM

Four of the five nominees for this year's Webby Award in the science category are sponsored by major global organizations, including National Geographic and NASA. The fifth is an astronomy site created by Ricky Leon Murphy and his wife.

In 2004, Murphy, a lanky, 36-year-old Army veteran who works as an ophthalmic photographer and network administrator at Stanford's California VitreoRetinal Center, created Astronomy Online to house all the research he was accumulating in an online master's program in astronomy.

On a bit of a lark, Murphy sent in the $50 fee to submit his site for a Webby Award a few months ago. He had almost forgotten about it when, a few weeks ago, he received an e-mail saying his site was one of the five nominees selected in the science category.

He is in distinguished company. The other nominees are the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, NASA's Ozone Hole Watch, Springwatch (a nature site sponsored by the BBC) and The Genographic Project (sponsored by National Geographic and IBM).

"I was very surprised," Murphy said. He was also elated at achieving equal recognition with some global heavyweights.

Murphy created the site with the help of his programmer wife, Chanthirar. Astronomy Online quickly grew into a 900-page database with sections on the solar system, cosmology, astrobiology and astrophotography. It also features forums, technical tips, thousands of links to other sources, and beautiful photos of distant planets, stars, galaxies and comets. An efficient search engine makes it all easy to find.

The Webby Awards, called the Oscars of the online world by The New York Times, drew more than 5,500 entries this year in a variety of categories, but only 6 percent made the finals. Winners will be announced Tuesday.

Astronomy Online had 24 percent of the People's Voice vote at press time, trailing National Geographic by just 1 percent. And while a Webby might not guarantee a site's success, Murphy said his pageviews have increased from an average of 30 per day to 170 since the nomination, some days reaching 400.

Top experts in astronomy give the site high marks. Harvard astronomy professor Alyssa Goodman said the site "looks amazing."

What makes Murphy's achievement even more amazing is that he has battled all his life with severe dyslexia. The disability, it turns out, played a role in his decision to pursue a master's degree in astronomy.

"I usually attack a subject that I am weak in," he said. "For example, reading and comprehension were extremely difficult for me, which is why I chose English to be my initial major in college. I forced myself to deal with it. In a way, that is why I decided on a master's degree in astronomy, which, by the way, is a dyslexic's worst nightmare -- tables, charts, mathematics, writing."

Three years ago, he decided to more seriously pursue his lifelong interest in astronomy by enrolling in an online master's program in astronomy, run by the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. He plans to complete the program in June.

In the meantime, he's helping educate other astronomy students all over the world.

"This website is simply fantastic," wrote Layla Moran, a high school physics teacher in Belgium in an e-mail to Murphy. She stumbled upon Astronomy Online while investigating potential activities for her astronomy club. "This website is so full of information and ideas -- it makes my job laughably easy."

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Here are some Blogs that refer to the story:

The Hoover Daily Blog | Cyberbabble | Weisslog (German) | Goodshit (Adult) | Live Marks | Debate Both Sides

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