The Electronic Grapevine: Computer Networks and Fax Machines Accelerate the Pace of Scientific Communication - for Good or Ill

Article excerpt

The Electronic Grapevine

It didn't take long for mathematicians, computer scientists, and then the rest of the world to learn that two researchers had achieved a significant milestone last June in the factoring of large numbers. News of their accomplishment spread as quickly as electrons could carry the message along computer networks linking researchers all over the world.

"Communication is very, very fast," says mathematician Andrew M. Odlyzko of AT&T Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., who first heard of the factoring feat directly from one of the researchers via telephone, and soon afterward saw the electronic announcement on his computer screen.

Electronic communication also played a major role in the factoring effort itself. Arjen K. Lenstra of Bellcore in Morristown, N.J., and Mark S. Manasse of the Digital Equipment Corp. Systems Research Center in Palo Alto, Calif., recruited scientists and mathematicians in the United States, Europe, Australia and Japan to help with the project. Each participant electronically received a copy of the necessary computer program and, in turn, supplied the answers to a specific piece of the factoring puzzle.

Manasse and Lenstra then collected the results and, using a powerful computer in Florida, put together all the bits and pieces to complete the factorization (SN: 6/23/90, p. 389). The entire collaboration involved about 1,000 computers scattered throughout the world.

For a growing number of scientists, computer networks have become an indispensable part of any research effort, used for such tasks as discussing conceptual issues, exchanging software, revising publications and preparing and reviewing grant proposals. These researchers maintain that networked computers eliminate the distance factor, which so often interferes with collaboration among scientists. Computer networks create electronic communities that give people working thousands of miles apart the feeling of living in a small village, with all the intimacy and ease of communication that implies.

Many scientists and engineers, looking back just a few years, find it hard to imagine how they got along without their facsimile machines and networked computers. To stay current in a field, whether in mathematics, astronomy or electrical engineering, you must have access to a computer network such as Bitnet, they now say. Moreover, the integration of data collection, word processing and electronic mail in one system means that colleagues can read a paper or report, whether in final or draft form, as soon as it's finished -- sometimes even as it's being written.

The amount of information carried by computer networks is now immense -- and growing astronomically. In 1988, NSFNET, the national research network sponsored by the National Science Foundation, carried 100 million "packets" of information, each a collection of bits carrying an address. By February of this year, network traffic had reached 2.5 billion packets, and the quantity is still growing by an average of 20 percent per month. Incredibly, one recent month's traffic represented 10 percent of all the information ever sent across the network.

But that growth has not come without cost. Misinformation travels just as quickly as established fact. The specter of electronic vandalism hovers over the fragile networks. And the technology required for the long-term care, feeding and storage of electronic information remains rudimentary and largely untested.

To an astonishing degree, electronic mail carried over computer networks and documents transmitted by facsimile machines have already supplanted the more traditional means of formally and informally exchanging scientific ideas and data. And these electronic vehicles are significantly altering the way in which researchers do their work. In particular, electronic communication allows the speedy posting of new findings. …