I think the first time I ever used the internet was after I read Dan Brown’s “Angels and Demons” and wondered if the Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire, a.k.a CERN, was a real thing or a plot device to move along the novel’s narrative. Yes, there was indeed a CERN. Yes, they did produce the seemingly mythical anti-matter which blew away my ten-year-old imagination. Yes, there was a giant tunnel crossing the French-Swiss border with the world’s biggest machine in it, made to smash particles against each other. Ever since then, my wee mind latched on to what I knew as physics: It became synonymous with exotic matter, the frontier of known science, and adventures in the Vatican. I would later learn that not all physicists solve puzzles left behind by the ancient Catholic church—but hey, physicists were still awesome.
Nowadays I still have my mind blown away—the internet became a medium of exploration for realms where I could not physically explore. NASA’s website is my gateway to the inner Solar System and through it I glimpsed the tantalizing possibility of life in Europa’s or Enceladus’ salt oceans, hidden underneath the surface of these icy globes orbiting Jupiter and Saturn respectively. GalaxyZoo offered me not only never-before seen pictures of galaxies being spotted by the Hubble Space Telescope, but the opportunity to be the first to classify them! I couldn’t wait to get home from school to literally explore galaxies. The cosmos was opened to me, but so was the microcosm. I identified neurons by painting them in Eyewire, along with thousands of others, to unravel the connections and intricacies of a person’s visual cortex. I manipulated and folded proteins for points—it was a puzzle game, after all—in FoldIt. A few novel proteins were discovered by players, but I wonder what came of that?
I had become what is popularly known as a civilian scientist, boring civilian by day—explorer of the big and small unknowns by night. You can tell that it takes a vivid imagination, can’t you? It’s not an easy hobby to share with those around you, but I easily met people from all over the world—Estonia, El Salvador, the Philippines, the United States too—who had the same glimmer in their eyes as I did. They often become the best of friends.
That was all explicitly non-academic, but it was my first foray into the scientific world. My most brilliant professor yet, on my very first semester too, taught me how to use and search databases for academic journals. For the first time, I could confidently call myself scientifically literate. The skill of perusing databases for scholarly articles and being able to interpret them has become an invaluable skill to me, essential for university projects, grant applications or satisfying curiosities that otherwise could not be sated. It’s something I’ll be cultivating for the rest of my life—in fact, every time I’ve gone to an exposition or conference, I’ve found that each time I could understand the jargon and lectures more clearly than the last time. Academic papers become more legible as time goes on—as if I’m learning the language for interpreting the workings of the universe.
The internet’s educational onslaught did not stop there. Recently, massive open online courses (MOOCs) have started to disrupt traditional education. The first online course I took was Archaelogy’s Dirty Little Secrets, from Brown University. Perhaps a far cry of my old belief that physicists solved ancient biblical puzzles. The next year, I followed up with Systems Biology from Surrey University, Special Relativity from World Science University, and Introductory Planetary Science and Astronomy from California State University in Dominguez Hills. If it counts, I use Khan Academy all the time for my physical science and math courses—I have over 240,000 points. It may be meaningless outside of Khan Academy, but if you were part of it, you would understand how much that is. I was officially hooked.
What does the future hold for those who compulsively accumulate points in Khan Academy’s math games? A bold career of interdisciplinary research intertwining physics, chemistry and biology, I hope. I’m starting off with a major in physics for my Bachelor’s degree and become a researcher in materials and energy sciences, so let us presume I’ll at least achieve that. Databases and internet archives are indispensable for researchers because they allow them to easily share data and results that can be easily discriminated by a searcher’s criteria. Research Gate is a quasi-social network that connects scientists, engineers and researchers while allowing them to share their work with one another. A good way to stay in touch with your more nerdy friends too. Government and university research or internship programs are publicized mostly through the internet—without it, it would be very difficult to achieve a decent quota of applicants. The internet and computer science have become integrated into every scientific discipline in some way, and any future scientists will most likely be using the internet to make them better scientists and to connect them with potential partners (either in research, business, or romance). The internet will offer a wealth of opportunities that cannot be found otherwise, and I surmise it will be a key tool for me in the near and far future.
Finally, I would like to thank the gentlemen at DARPA who made this web of possibilities possible with ARPANET and Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider for apparently being the first person to conceive such an idea.