Science Articles

Once a Knight is Not Enough

Mon, 15th Jun 2009

Why the inventor of the language that made the World Wide Web a reality needs more than a knighthood...

Douglas Richards

The inventions of fire, agriculture and the wheel were seminal events in human history. The printing press, electricity, calculus, the telephone, and the computer brought on world-changing revolutions. But no advance has ever had such an indelible impact on so many, so quickly, so profoundly, and so unexpectedly as Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web. From Berners-Lee’s initial proposal for the World Wide Web in 1989, and after he kindly introduced Web addresses (URLs), wrote the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) and the first Web Server, the entire world was transformed almost overnight — and transformed in a way that will forever alter the course of human history. The Nobel Prize is the ultimate award for scientific achievement, and no one has ever been more deserving than Tim Berners-Lee. The fact that he has yet to be honoured in this manner is a glaring oversight that needs to be rectified.

In the science fiction novel, Foundation, by Isaac Asimov, Hari Seldon foresees the fall of the Galactic Empire and a period of relative barbarism lasting 30,000 years, which he tells the Emperor can be shortened to only 1,000 years by amassing humankind’s collective knowledge in a work called the Encyclopedia Galactica — a work that will take generations to complete. While Dr Seldon actually has other plans and is practicing a bit of misdirection here, his assertion regarding the profound importance to the species of such a collection of knowledge was never questioned by the novel’s readers when it was published — and for good reason. A single repository of all human knowledge was a powerful and compelling vision. But in a far distant future in which starships are commonplace, not even the inestimable Asimov ever imagined a vast collection of knowledge (including images, audio and video) that could be instantly searched for the occurrence of any subject matter or phrase, or one that would enable a reader to jump off the page to reference a related topic millions of pages away and then jump back again in an instant. Asimov’s Encyclopedia Galactica is just one facet of what Berners-Lee’s Web has brought into being in less than a single generation; a facet orders of magnitude more powerful than Asimov ever envisioned it could be.

So who am I to write a piece calling for a Nobel Prize for Sir Tim? Am I an expert on Berners-Lee, Nobel Prizes, or the Web? Not at all. But in a funny way this is precisely the point. The Web allows anyone to acquire at least modest knowledge of any subject imaginable — almost instantly. Just for the record, I am the author of two science fiction thrillers for kids, ages 9-12, that contain accurate science and scientific principles and were written to captivate, educate, and inspire. A senior editor at National Geographic KIDS (the most popular children’s magazine in America) read the first of these books, loved it, and asked me to try my hand at writing science pieces for the magazine. I have now written thirteen and counting. The only thing the thirteen pieces had in common is that I knew very little about the subject matter when I started, but thanks to the Web, I was able to come across as an expert and easily pass the countless accuracy checks undertaken by the editors. As a writer and science popularizer who is extremely reliant on the Web, I believe I have an excellent vantage point from which to assess the monumental impact this wondrous tool will have on the course of future human events.

It is truly hard to overstate the value of what Berners-Lee has brought into being. When I speak at schools I tell students that in my day, if I wanted to know the date of Einstein’s birth, I would have to go to a library, use the card catalogue, find a book, and then leaf through it until I found the date. Now I can retrieve this information in two seconds online. Suppose I wanted to know fifty recipes that use broccoli. How long would this have taken me as a kid? The answer: forever. There would be no way to get this information, no matter what I did. Now I search for “broccoli recipes” online and in seconds I have lists of hundreds. The Web is truly a miracle. In a piece about writing for National Geographic KIDS that was published by the Kansas Association of Teachers of Science, I wrote:

My favourite part about writing for NG KIDS is that I’m always learning new and fascinating things. I begin each piece knowing very little about the subject matter and with very few preconceptions as to what I want to write. I start with the Web and let it take me where it will. Like electricity following the path of least resistance, I follow the path that is the most captivating to me. And by doing so, I very quickly find amazing information I knew nothing about: information that can only be described as very, very cool.

I think kids could benefit greatly by repeating this exercise to see how easy and fun it can be to explore the inconceivably vast treasure trove of science information that is now online — much of it kid-friendly. Just have them Google a scientific subject along with the words “cool,” or “fascinating,” or “for kids” or “awesome facts,” and see what they get.

Or perhaps assign them to search “cool science facts” or something similar online and bring a cool fact back to school to share with their class. Perhaps then have them share one additional fact about this subject the next day. I just did this. After a Google search for “cool science facts” I clicked on the fourth result down, “fun science facts for kids,” and within sixty seconds learned that humans have unique “tongue-prints” as well as fingerprints. I had no idea. Now to get the second fact for my homework assignment. By Google-ing “tongue facts for kids,” I learned that your tongue is a hotbed of bacteria, contains thousands of taste buds, and is covered with bumps called papillae that grip food and move it around while you’re chewing. Cool!

Learning a specific set of facts for a given scientific topic is important. But I think encouraging students to go on an unconstrained adventure through the vast body of human knowledge, guided only by their imaginations and interests, can help them develop a passion for science and an appreciation for how fascinating, and surprising, science can be.

[As an aside, one has to use common sense when using the Web as an educational or research vehicle. Information on NASA's official website or from online scientific journals tends to be more accurate than information from 'Joe's blog site of made up facts.' If reliable sites are used, however, and information is verified from multiple sources, the up-to-the-minute Web can be even more accurate than several-year-old textbooks.]

So which Nobel Prize would I award Sir Tim for his unparalleled achievement? There are only six Nobel categories after all (which I just verified at Nobelprize.org — thank you again, World Wide Web): physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, economics and peace. I would argue that Berners-Lee’s achievement could warrant an award in each of these categories. The Web’s impact on commerce and the world economy had been profound, as has its analysis and dissemination of public-domain literature. Peace Prize? Why not? Has any development in history brought the world closer together? It’s called the World Wide Web after all, not the UK Wide Web or the US Wide Web, and it has lived up to its name in spades. This leaves physics, chemistry and medicine. The Web is arguably the greatest tool to which scientists in these fields, and any other, have ever had access. The cross pollination of ideas from one field to another is often instrumental for scientific advances, and the Web allows scientists and researchers to almost effortlessly go wherever novel ideas lead them, quickly gathering the relevant knowledge needed from tangential fields along the way. It is impossible to overstate the value of having a library of billions and trillions of pages at one’s fingertips, instantly searchable and cross-referenced to a degree unimaginable less than a generation ago.

But what are the counterarguments? The first is that Berners-Lee’s achievement isn’t really a scientific discovery in itself, but rather a powerful tool to facilitate scientific discoveries by others. This may be true, but this doesn’t diminish the immeasurable impact the Web will ultimately have on science, and besides, there are precedents for rewarding such “tools.” For example the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Kary Mullis for Polymerase Chain Reaction and Michael Smith for Site Directed Mutagenesis (two potent tools), about which the Nobel Committee in their press release said, “The two methods have greatly stimulated basic biochemical research and opened the way for new applications in medicine and biotechnology.”

Another argument is that since there is no award for computer science, awarding Berners-Lee a Prize in any of the categories described above wouldn’t be appropriate, and would also deprive a deserving specialist in that category. I tend to agree (and I also think that a Prize in just a single category would short-change Berners-Lee). This is why I’m calling for a special Nobel Prize to be created. If the Hugo award committee could come up with a special award to honour Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (Best All-Time Series), surely the Nobel Committee could do the same for Berners-Lee. How about, “Special Nobel Prize for immeasurable contributions to science, commerce, education, and society?” Perhaps this isn’t pithy enough, but I’m sure the members of the Committee have far greater imaginations than I do and can come up with something better. In the interest of showing the proper due to a man whose work revolutionized the world, and who refused to patent such work for fear of hindering its spread, I am calling on the Nobel Prize Committee to do just that.

If you agree then why not drop Douglas a line and tell him via his website where you can also find out more about some of the books he's written: http://www.douglaserichards.com

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