Exploring Cyberspace from Lyme Regis

Lyme Regis crest and web address on Marine Parade

A short history of weaving the World Wide Web

Science feature by Professor Glenn Patrick

COMPUTER technology has been one of the saviours of 2020 making this annus horribilis more bearable for many of us.

From our PC, laptop, tablet or smart phone we have been able to work from home, order groceries, consult health professionals, educate ourselves, watch entertainment, make family video calls, provide community support via social media and even continue to read LymeOnline!

Most of these activities are made possible by the World Wide Web (WWW) – the interface through which we communicate, share information, download software and much more.

Given its global use, it is surprising to still discover people who don’t realise that the web was developed at the CERN particle physics laboratory in Geneva. Maybe it is because CERN gave it away for free!

I remember the period leading up to the invention of the web well because in the 1980s I had worked in the same division at CERN as its inventor, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. His boss was a networking expert who I frequently came across in meetings, discussing the ever increasing IT demands of the huge atom smashing experiments at the laboratory.

By the time that Sir Tim came up with his proposal for the web in 1989, I was still working at CERN – but now on behalf of a UK research institute – on the Large Electron Positron Collider (LEP).

This was a massive project that first required the construction of a 27 km tunnel through the bedrock 100 metres beneath the valley and foothills close to Lake Geneva. The same tunnel is used today by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which made newspaper headlines around the world when it discovered the fabled Higgs particle.

The LEP machine collided beams of electrons (matter) with beams of positrons (antimatter), which resulted in millions of interactions when they annihilated. Four massive detectors were dotted around the collider recording the sub-atomic debris from these interactions.

The accelerator and the detectors were designed, built and operated by international collaborations with thousands of scientists and engineers scattered around the world.

The complexities of sharing information across different computer systems around the planet drove Sir Tim and colleagues to develop the World Wide Web. Instead of a plethora of homemade systems, at long last we had a system with a standard interface (browser), a standard language (hypertext) and a standard way of chaining it all together (hyperlinks).

Of course, the web would not be possible without some other ingredients, such as fast computer networks – the physical connections between computers.

In the UK, academic networks emerged in the 1960s and 1970s because universities were starting to install expensive mainframe computers for research and teaching. Not every institute could have one, so there was a need to share resources and to be able to remotely submit programs to a distant computer.

One of the earliest networks used leased telecommunication lines to connect universities to the high-performance computers sitting in the national laboratories of the Rutherford High Energy Laboratory, ATLAS Computing Laboratory, both in Oxfordshire, and the Daresbury Nuclear Physics Laboratory in Cheshire.

I remember marvelling at the fact that I could sit at a remote terminal and be able to submit a program to be processed hundreds of miles away on one of the most powerful computers in the world. How times have changed!

Meanwhile, in the US, a network called ARPANET was expanding across university, government and military sites. Those were the days of the Cold War and ARPANET had originally materialised out of the need for communication systems to survive nuclear attack.

The big problem at that time was that the various networks not only used different hardware, but also incompatible communication protocols. There needed to be a convergence of standards and ways found for different networks to function together – termed “internetworking”.

After many years of competing development in different countries, the suite of protocols developed for ARPANET won and in 1982 what we now know as the Internet started to emerge.

We should not forget that the other necessary ingredient to the wider success of the web and the Internet was the development of the personal computer. After the early home microcomputers, the IBM Personal Computer (PC) with its Microsoft operating system revolutionised the scene in 1981.

This became a standard and spurred other companies to produce clones of the IBM machine – helping to expand and commercialise the Internet. Instead of a machine that filled a building, we suddenly had a powerful box that could sit on a desk in an office or home!

Facebook, Google and Amazon now use massive data centres built from thousands of similar small boxes – or servers – housed in miles of racks.

Today, we have bits and bytes, in the form of pulses of light, flowing to our houses through superfast optical fibres as part of our everyday infrastructure – just like gas, water and electricity.

Data cables are being laid beneath the oceans to increase the bandwidth between continents, such as the transatlantic cable recently announced by Google, which will connect Bude in Cornwall with New York and Bilbao.

We have also recently seen hundreds of Starlink satellites – sometimes visible over Lyme Regis – launched by the SpaceX company, bringing high speed Internet to remote places.

With 4.8 billion Internet users across the world now online – an astonishing 62 per cent of the planet – we truly live in the Information Age.

This vast scale brings with it challenges such as security and privacy, but hopefully technology can stay ahead of the scammers, spammers and trolls.

A short walk around Lyme Regis looking at shop signs shows how much the digital world has permeated everyday life and has even helped some businesses to stay afloat during the pandemic.

However, as the shift to online shopping gains ever increasing traction, new issues have surfaced. The most obvious casualties are the losses of some local services – the banks, the Tourist Information Centre and even potentially our post office.

Cyberspace and e-commerce may often be cheaper and more convenient than visiting large chain stores, but there are simply times when there is no substitute for talking face to face with a fellow human being.

As we emerge from the fallout from COVID-19, we need to value the cultural and spiritual values of human interaction. After all, it is the oldest user interface, and we are lucky to have plenty of friendly, independent shops in Lyme Regis.

Glenn Patrick is a particle physicist and science communicator who explores the quantum world of sub-atomic particles (including at the Large Hadron Collider) and now lives in Lyme Regis

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