On 8 March, UK Science Minister David Hunt opened CERN1's 'World-Wide Web Days', a conference designed to give journalists, educators and communication experts a practical introduction to this new telecommunications revolution. Citing CERN's invention of the Web as the latest in a long line of unforseeable spin-offs, the Minister praised the vital role played by fundamental research: "By working at the extreme limits of present technology", said Hunt, "CERN and other basic research laboratories help to break new technological ground and sow the seeds of what will become mainstream manufacturing in the future."
The Minister also used the occasion to put five British secondary schools on the Web. These are all in his home constituency on the Wirral, and with the help of the University of Liverpool, have become the first in the UK to join the mushrooming global community of Web users. Hailing the development of the Web as "Another great first for CERN", Mr Hunt closed his speech with a tour of the schools' Web pages. As he mouse-clicked his way on a computer from page to page, delegates saw information about the schools and pictures of Liverpool pupils at work in their classrooms. "Who would have guessed 10 years ago that particle physics research would lead to a communication system which would allow every school to have the biggest library in the world inside a single computer?", asked the Minister, noting that "This is what's happened with the invention and development of the World-Wide Web at CERN."
The World-Wide Web was originally dreamt up to allow physicists easy access to their data wherever in the World they may be. Its inventor, Englishman Tim Berners-Lee, mixed together two existing ingredients to create something quite extraordinary. The base of the recipe is the Internet, the 20 year old global network-of-networks to which Berners-Lee added hypertext. Hypertext allows related pieces of information on a computer to be linked together. The user sees a highlighted word or phrase, and clicks on it to pull up more information. The World-Wide Web extends this basic idea to a global scale, and has transformed the Internet from a tool for academics and computer buffs into a vast reservoir of information which anyone can use. In 1994, the Web grew by a staggering 350,000%, and has rapidly established itself as the largest interactive service on the Internet.
The five pioneering Merseyside schools who have connected themselves to the Web have opened up the World's biggest library for their pupils. There are already over 10,000 computers holding information available to Web users at the click of a mouse, and this number is growing every day. The Web also allows the schools to communicate with other Internet users, and to display information about themselves to any of the millions of Web users who might be interested. As more and more schools become connected, the possibility for Web based educational projects is limited only by the imagination.
Over two hundred journalists and communication experts from all over Europe came to CERN for the World-Wide Web Days. Day one was devoted to practicalities, with talks ranging from an overview of the Web, by one of its pioneers, Robert Cailliau, to the cost of getting connected. A CERN experiment, a Dutch television channel, a Swiss high-tech company, and an Irish newspaper all described the benefits they have gained from being on the Web. Throughout the conference, workstations were available for hands-on demonstrations under the enthusiastic guidance of pupils from a local school. On 9 March, attention turned to social and legal considerations. Who controls the Internet? How can we censor unsuitable material? Where is the Web going from here?
Last but not least, delegates were given a chance to visit the laboratory where the Web was invented. As CERN relinquishes basic Web development work to concentrate on its primary mission, it is worth remembering that the driving force of fundamental physics made it happen here.
Notes for Editors:
The five Merseyside schools are Calday Grange Grammar School for Boys, Hilbre High School, Pensby High School for Boys, Pensby High School for Girls, and West Kirby Grammar School for Girls. For those who have access to the Web, they can be found at the address http://www.liv.ac.uk/Merseyside/Schools.html
Core development of the Web is being transferred from CERN to the French National Institute for Computer Science and Control, INRIA, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT in the United States. These organisations will ensure future development and global standards.