It was designed to uncover the truth about the origins of the universe, and along the way it gave the world its greatest innovation in communications. CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, began life in the 1950s with the express purpose of exploring the nature of the atom, then the dominant focus of physics research.
Over the ensuing decades CERN drew together thousands of collaborators from across the world, and its IT department began looking for ways to better connect this sprawling community of scientists.
The result was nothing less than the World Wide Web, which makes possible today’s digital age. That CERN network of scientists has continued to grow over recent decades, but its researchers communicate using a commercial-grade video conferencing system.
The simplicity of that system could be employed to create yet another CERN mass communication spin-off–a worldwide connection of college students and young researchers.
CERN Invented the World Wide Web
As with most ground-breaking inventions, it wasn’t actually something as amorphous as an “IT department” that brought the World Wide Web to life. It was very much the work of British software consultant Tim Berners-Lee, who, while working at CERN in the 1980s, first imagined and then delivered an “information management proposal” to link all those physicists and their research.
Prior to Berners-Lee, foreign scientists attending the Geneva facility would bring their own computers with them, plug into the CERN mainframe (if their machine was compatible), share and save their research, and then lug the whole thing back home.
He made it possible to leave all that heavy lifting, and even travel, behind by inventing the three protocols and languages that still drive the Web today–HTML, URL, and HTTP. With these in place any computer in the world could communicate with any other, as long as they each knew the common language to speak across the internet.
While Berners-Lee has since moved on to watch over his creation at MIT and leave CERN to the business of particle physics, his network at the European research outfit is now home to 20,000 scientists from 100 nations and 600 institutions.
And it is all powered by a commercial video calling company.
Scientific Video Calling
Video conferencing specialists Vidyo may have some high-profile clients, such as NASA, the Mayo Clinic, the U.S. Army, and even Sears, but it is still at heart a business solution.
You can try out its video conferencing capabilities yourself. In fact, if you’re running a small business the product is intended for you. It is WebRTC-based, which means it can be launched via a web browser–something Berners-Lee, an ardent campaigner for open source web access, would love–and users can join a group video conversation from any device, without additional downloads or even logins.
And it’s the same product, albeit at a much higher scale, that handles all those research connections at CERN–up to 750 simultaneous connections across a common platform.
If a commercial-grade video conferencing service can handle real-time communications at that scale, there’s little to prevent the same kind of accessible, affordable, nimble, open source company building the same kind of research connection for a more resource-poor group of researchers–the college student.
Video Conferencing to Connect Colleges Around the World
Berners-Lee got the ball rolling on the World Wide Web by reaching out to fellow researchers and institutions and asking them to create their own servers and web pages. From little things, gigantic things grow.
Many of America’s leading universities are already linked through an exclusive new form of internet connection called Internet2. The closed network of 200 leading institutions operates on its own grid of private and dark fiber optic networks and can access broadband speeds 20 times faster than the U.S. average.
If these colleges use their international standing to create exclusive, research-only connections with their international peers, America’s brightest university students could enjoy every day, real-time connections with the best young researchers in the world.
Of course, those foreign institutions don’t have access to Internet2, but they don’t need it. If CERN can function on WebRTC power and a business-class video link, so can Cambridge, the Sorbonne, or the University of Tokyo.
An Education Web
With an affordable, scalable link in place, U.S. students could study abroad as easily as they study at home.
Undergraduate students could attend lectures, or even undertake entire courses, with international faculties without leaving home–the use of Skype Translator could even help with the language barrier. Some colleges already offer dual qualifications with international partners, so some of the bureaucratic barriers have already been crossed.
Things become more interesting at the graduate level. Here young researchers could find partners the world over who are exploring the same boundaries of science and engineering. A U.S. team could collaborate on an international project in their field, or lend their expertise to a specific portion of a larger multinational affair, all linked by direct video calls that can be distilled down to a connection between two students.
It could become a direct duplicate of the CERN community, a training school where the researchers of the future make connections and expand their own understanding and ambitions. Like a giant social network dedicated to higher education, such a connection could become an intellectual dating site for the brightest young brains in the world.
If the hundreds of connected physicists operating in the 1950s could give rise to the World Wide Web and the Large Hadron Collider, imagine what a million young minds working face-to-face across the boundless space of the internet could accomplish today.