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The role of the Internet

We discuss the emergence of the Internet as a global network, and in particular its influence on the high-energy physicists in their daily working lives.

Birth of the net

The birth of the internet is associated in part with the high energy physics community. One of the first large computer networks that was highly interconnected was built in Geneva, in the community of physicists working on the large particle accelerator at CERN. Arguably, this was the birthplace of the European internet, from which it spread over the rest of Europe. Americans were fast in copying the idea, and way faster in developing it, and in applying it for multiple purposes, unimagined by its inventors.

Daily abstracts

Every weekday, new papers appear on the hep-th archive (i.e. the High Energy Physics -- Theoretical archive) which used to be located at Los Alamos, and recently moved to Cornell with its spiritual father Ginsparg. Most people in the field daily check at least the list of abstracts and titles that one can easily download from the nearest "arxiv.org" node, in plain, efficient and accessible HTML language. Most will view a few papers on the screen, select one or two to print perhaps, if the harvest of the day looks appetizing, and read it that morning, that evening, or put it on the pile of papers they still need to look through. (Visit your nearest node to see the archive at work. Check the daily abstracts, and titles, and notice how difficult it is to understand the technical jargon used in the papers. Unless you're a trained expert, you cannot read these papers.) Often the papers of the day are discussed at lunchtime, whether the day itself or the day after. One of the hobbies of high energy physicists is to try and guess the precise content of a paper on the basis of the abstract or the title only -- fun !

Beep !

E-mail has become the main means of communication in our community. Invitations for conferences, job offers and negotiations, invitations for seminars, appointments with students or staff, the latest gossip: all is done electronically, if not orally, by phone or in person. Indeed, many receive their daily abstracts in their electronic mailbox. Many also will have collaborators abroad, which may live their lives on a completely different time schedule. At the end of the day a colleague might type up the progress she made that day, and send it out via e-mail to help along her collaborator as he starts working the next day. The e-mailbox also serves many has a handy tool to keep track of their busy schedules -- they will keep mails that they still need to reply to in their inbox, or they will even send themselves a message to remind them of a meeting or seminar that they need to attend. Invitations are kept in mailboxes until they really need to be answered -- schedules for traveling are often only decided upon on at the latest moment, to allow for compatibility between workshops, seminars, conferences, and private life.


The internet has made all papers immediately accessible to zillions of people around the globe. It used to be the case that preprints (i.e. first versions of papers that were not yet published in journals) were sent out to all major universities, or that papers had a very limited first distribution amongst members of small group. Not anymore. One electronic version of the paper can be downloaded as many times as necessary, from almost anywhere on the planet. A crucial aspect of this most desirable development is that the field has become more democratic. Everybody has simultaneous access to all the available information. (Of course, in practice, there are still advantages to being close to the sources of inspiration, but I only want to sketch the big picture here.) It has become more feasible for instance for East-Asia to follow closely the latest trends set on the East Coast of the States. This has lead to the discovery of a great deal of talent all across the globe, from regions that would otherwise have been highly disfavored. Autodidacts have many more tools available for success now than fifteen years ago. And they're using them to great effect.

Of course, the same development has had less agreeable aspects. The immediate access to such a large audience has had undesirable side-effects on the sociology of the subject. It is well-known that large crowds of spectators (whether expert, smart, or self-centered) are prone to mass hysteria. Although the use of the term is exaggerated in this context, it can certainly be argued that at times solid slow science has been temporarily obscured by fashion. This had made string theory a source of ridicule amongst its enemies, as amongst its fans. At larger time-scales, it can convincingly be stated that the string theory community is sufficiently self-critical and self-correcting to stay on track to meet definite scientific goals. Our text attempts to demonstrate, amongst other things, the latter point.