Insights: Wired Superstrings; May 2003; Scientific American Magazine; by Gary Stix; 2 Page(s)
Cornell University physicist N. David Mermin remembers a student in the late 1970s who would occasionally attend his advanced graduate class on how a branch of topology, called homotopy theory, could be applied in condensed-matter physics. The first-year student would show up every two weeks or so, sit for 10 minutes and then, having ascertained that the class still wasn't covering material that he didn't already know, quietly pick up and leave. After a while, the drop-in stopped appearing at all, but he would sometimes come around to Mermin's office to give the professor advice. "I learned a lot from him," Mermin recounts.
That same independent streak manifested itself 13 years later when the former student, Paul Ginsparg, took a few hours to program a NeXT computer at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The program directed the computer to accept prepublication copies of physics papers automatically and to send out e-mail abstracts of the papers. The full text of the preprint could then be retrieved by querying the computer. Within weeks after the server (then called xxx.lanl.gov) became active in 1991, communication within the high-energy-physics community underwent a transformation. The preprints, which had been available to only an elite few, could now be picked over by anyone instantaneously, whether in Cambridge, Krakow or Calcutta.