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the god Pan

The god Pan, Arcadian Lord of the flocks and pastures, discusses the origins of the World Wide Web.

"The Fish-Collider"

Have you ever bumped into somebody? I mean literally bumped into them. It happens from time to time.

Presumably the same thing happens to animals. If two dozen squirrels share a small urban park, then as they screech around the branches at top speed they're bound to make occasional body contact.

Now take the same issue into the sky. Pigeons are lousy fliers, they must crash into each other on a regular basis. Flies flit around unpredictably and are stupid. There's no way they can organise flightpaths and avoid mid-air collisions.

Fish are pretty dumb too, yet they tend to gather together in small areas of the ocean, leaving the rest of it empty. Can you imagine two shoals of herring crossing each other's paths? It must be chaos. Headaches, bruises and damaged fins all round.

This is an area of natural science about which we knew very little. Exactly how many times do rabbits run into each other? Or deer?

Fifteen years ago, scientists in Switzerland began looking for the answers. They built the world's biggest fish-collider at CERN (Collision Experimentation Research Nexus) in Geneva. The main apparatus is a wide ring-shaped pipe containing water. Pellets of fish food are dropped from the top of the pipe in a controlled sequence that speeds up two fish in the opposite sides of the ring until they head towards each other at full speed. The frequency of collisions can be measured using an atomic cuckoo clock.

To disguise the experiment and keep it out of the public eye, scientists refer to the installation as a "particle accelerator". But the particles are really guppies.

Three hundred million Swiss Francs later, still nobody knows how often fish collide, though there's some evidence that it's less than once every fifteen years. Bored scientists, watching the guppies fail to collide yet again, realised they could spend their time more profitably at home if they could watch the experiment remotely. Hence the invention of the fish-cam.

And in order for the fish-cam to work, it needed a World Wide Web to run on. Step forward British scientist Timothy "Bunsen" Levi, then working at CERN.

With the WWW up and running and the Web-cam plugged in, the scientists were now free to go home and watch the fish-collider on their computers and get on with the important business of realising the full potential of the Web, i.e. developing porn sites.

Pan on the gender of computers

Pan on the desktop icon cleanup wizard

On poor search engine results

More Pan on the Foxglove Home page.

Send your questions to Pan at ajs@foxglove.co.uk


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