Canning the Internet for Third World Laboratories:
Scientific Nexus CD-ROMs in Crystallography and Alife for Remote Scientists
Science is the product of cumulative gains in knowledge
that have slowly built up over millennia to reach the present ever increasing
crescendo of research results. However, due to this cumulative nature,
scientists cannot participate in meaningful science and education if they do
not have the resources to determine where existing knowledge
stops and the unknown starts. The present internet can both be a source
of useful soft scientific information; as well as a signpost to probe this
grey area of known and unknown without the requirement for an elaborate,
expensive library and reference system.
Thus full connection to the internet is becoming of primary importance in obtaining easy and quick access to the latest, modern, public scientific software and information. Scientists however, working in nations not yet fully connected to the internet, are effectively discriminated against in being denied access to these public scientific resources. It may also be a case where scientists "don't know what they don't know", when cryptic jargon and buzzwords such as "World Wide Web", "E-mail", "FTP", "Homepages", etc are mentioned in the literature but cannot be fully appreciated until lit up on a computer screen. While much literature, including highly respected journals, claim the connectivity of the third world to the internet is radically increasing; there is a difference between a country being connected to the internet and its academics being allowed to use it (personal communications primarily related to the crystallography newsgroup sci.techniques.xtallography).
One experiment to try and overcome this barrier is the free Crystallographic Nexus CD-ROM; which is a trial attempt of a "Virtual Internet and Virtual World Wide Web", delivered not by fast electrons but using the slower postal system(1). The crystallographic and academic Web sites included on the CD are in the form of a "Virtual World Wide Web". The executable software is restricted to PC based DOS and MS-Windows crystallographic and subsidiary programs. PCs are presently a universal computer; common; relatively cheap; easy to use; and available independent of geographical and political boundaries.
Presently, information and files are collected off the internet using and a 28,800 serial modem connected to the internet via the phone system in Melbourne, Australia. CDs are then "burnt" using a standard CDR CD-ROM writer. Thus minimal resources are required to implement a "Virtual Internet" on CD making further scientific variations on this theme easy to create. The Nexus CD-ROM potentially includes enough software and information to start up a crystallographic analysis laboratory from scratch(2). Another crystallographic version for the Linux/UNIX operating system is being considered to allow PCs remote from the internet to become potentially powerful crystallographic workstation and development systems. While the first versions of the CD-ROM took thousands of hours to manually implement; cheap, commercially available, automated software now allows automatic collection of full or partial web-sites, in both 16 and 32 bit compatible files types. Even within the confines of a limited 28,800 modem internet link on the local phone system, a completely new scientific Nexus CD-ROM can be implemented on a part-time basis by a single person within a week to a fortnight.
Another preliminary Nexus CD-ROM is for Artificial Life based scientific information and software freely available off the internet. Research into computer based Artificial Life combined with modern Darwinian Evolutionary theory is having a revolutionising effect on the way we will view ourselves and the world in the future. Information available on the internet allows people to learn and partake in this exciting area of research and philosophy, not only to contibute but also the option of debunking it if opinions differ. While not a full substitute for live access to the internet; simple, affordable solutions such as CD-ROM technology have the potential to keep researchers remote from the internet relatively close and up to date with information, pointers and keywords, and also provide the tools with which to meaningfully participate.
A "Catch 22" of this initiative is how to inform potential users of the Nexus CD-ROMs' availability. The informal private links between scientists world wide may hold a solution to this, plus "advertising" in the relevant journals? Or perhaps locating these type of initiatives in central laboratories (in their respective fields) that would normally act as nerve centres for informal communication.
There are a number of legal issues in creating this kind of virtual internet/virtual World Wide Web based CD-ROM. One of the more intractable legal obstacles is that much internet software is subject to export restrictions. Judicious choice of software can help in some regards; but not with respect to all the varying technologies available on the World Wide Web.
Even if eventually shown to be impractical, not attempting methods to bridge the enormous information gap exacerbated by the internet risks further isolation of scientific colleagues from the general community; leaving them marooned and rotting in information ghettos. Initiatives that allow fellow scientists to perform research on as level playing field as possible is consistent with the spirit of co-operation that progressive science demands from its participants.