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Is the Universe a Hologram?Scientists Answer the Most Provocative Questions$

Adolfo Plasencia

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780262036016

Published to MIT Press Scholarship Online: January 2018

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262036016.001.0001

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The Logic of Physics versus the Logic of Computer Science

The Logic of Physics versus the Logic of Computer Science

(p.147) 13 The Logic of Physics versus the Logic of Computer Science
Is the Universe a Hologram?

Bebo White

Adolfo Plasencia

The MIT Press

Abstract and Keywords

Bebo White, the physicist and computational scientist at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Stanford University, was one of the first people to get involved in Web technology as a result of his stay at CERN in the group developing the hypertext transfer protocol, HTTP. Almost immediately following this, he became part of the dedicated team who published the first web page in the USA, - and the first outside Europe -, and he is considered the first ‘webmaster’ in history. He agrees that IT is an approximate science but points out that this discipline, combined with web technology, has a huge impact on ‘what is going on’ at present in scientific research. Bebo then moves on to argument why one of the greatest threats for the future of the Web, - and for internet to reach its full potential -, is to ignore or shun open standards.

Keywords:   Web technology, Linked Open Data, The Internet / Web of Things, Web-based teaching and learning, Hypertext transfer protocol HTTP, Open Internet, Wikipedia, Web 2.0, Social Web, IW3C2 Conferences

The Logic of Physics versus the Logic of Computer Science

Bebo White.

Photograph courtesy of B.W.

Yes … [computing] is an approximative science. In fact, traditional scientists, such as physicists, often argue whether computer science is a science at all.

At the very beginning, we thought people would not remember how to spell HTTP, it was so strange at the time. Today it is so universal nobody seems to have any problems.

—Bebo White

Bebo White is a Departmental Associate (Emeritus) at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Stanford University, and Visiting Professor of (p.148) Computer Science at the University of Hong Kong. Working as a computational physicist, he first became involved with emerging Web technology while on sabbatical at CERN in 1989. Upon his return to the United States he became part of the team that established the first non-European website, at SLAC.

His academic research interests have evolved in parallel with Web technology and include computational physics, high-energy physics, Web science, Linked Open Data, “The Internet/Web of Things,” online security, human-computer interactions, Web-based teaching and learning, cybercurrencies, and Web engineering.

Adolfo Plasencia:

  • Bebo, thanks for meeting me for this conversation.
  • Bebo White:

  • My pleasure.
  • A.P.:

  • You are a computational physicist and an information systems analyst at SLAC,1 but your background is actually in physics; you trained as a physicist, but you are also interested in computing. Am I right?
  • You come from the world of physics, don’t you?
  • B.W.:

  • Yes, I am originally a physicist with an interest in instrumentation and in data analysis produced by instruments. That is how I arrived in the IT world. And based as I am in the area of San Francisco, you can imagine how hard it is to avoid computers.
  • A.P.:

  • Bebo, was it by chance that you became a physicist and that the Web was invented at CERN, the particle center? Or was it your sabbatical as a physicist that led you to CERN and to get involved with the Web project?
  • B.W.:

  • It was physics, definitely. I remember the first time I signed up for a computer course. I thought it was so simplistic, so silly. The Web was invented at CERN, which is primarily a physics laboratory.2 I was working at SLAC at the time, and the need for SLAC to collaborate with other international laboratories was the reason we got involved with the Web at such an early stage. Our website at SLAC was the first site not only in the United States but in the whole Western Hemisphere, and the fifth in the world.
  • A.P.:

  • Yes, we are going to talk about that. What I meant is, was it the logic of things, of reality, or was it chance that took you to the Web?
  • B.W.:

  • Let me tell you a little story and you will understand. A major contribution of SLAC to the high-energy physics (HEP) community is a preprints database, used by physicists from all over the world. However, prior to the Web, the access to that database was extremely awkward. When (p.149) SLAC physicists visited CERN, the physicists at CERN would complain about how difficult it was to use SLAC’s preprints database.
  • Tim Berners-Lee showed us during a visit to CERN (before 1990) that with a Web browser it was possible to access the database independent of the user’s operating system. This was important since the HEP labs were inconsistent in the computer operating systems they used. By using the Web interface, issues with access to the preprints database miraculously disappeared.
  • A.P.:

  • Bebo, is the logic of physics the same as the logic of computing? Some argue that computing is an approximative science. What do you think?
  • B.W.:

  • Yes, I agree, it is an approximative science. In fact, traditional scientists, such as physicists, often argue whether computer science is a science at all. You actually want to know whether computer science adheres to the scientific method, don't you? However, I suspect that the algorithmic rigor (or logic) of computer science could have made me a better physicist. I am very interested in Web science, which tries to understand the evolution and possible future of the Web in scientific terms. There is also no doubt that Web technology—and all computing—has had a major impact on how scientific research is done. That’s why I am fascinated by computational science.
  • A.P.:

  • The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences gave you the Webby Award in San Francisco, the “Oscar” of digital arts and sciences. Other awardees have included the music star David Bowie, the great filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, the actress Susan Sarandon, and many more from their field. How do you feel being among such a group?
  • B.W.:

  • Well, it is not exactly an award; it is more like being a member of a committee. The goal is to see how the Web—not only the Web but digital technology in general—can help artists such as David Bowie or Francis Ford Coppola advance their art. I am very happy to be included in this group of people because the digital world and the Web are relevant not just to science and technology; they also have an impact on the art forms these artists use to communicate with people, for example in music or films.
  • A.P.:

  • Bebo, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Web was recently celebrated. You were at CERN in the late 1980s, collaborating in the development of the hypertext transfer protocol, or HTTP, with a very small group of people, including Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau, the “fathers of the Web.” According to the site WorldWideWebSize there are (p.150) now more than 4.71 billion websites, and according to Google’s total index there are more than 46 billion sites with URLs that begin with those letters, http.
  • How was your experience at CERN, twenty-five years ago? And what do you think about its amazing effects? Almost a third of the planet uses HTTP.
  • What are your memories and your feelings now?
  • B.W.:

  • It was a unique experience to work with people like Tim and Robert. Tim had a dream, and Robert took that dream and helped promote it. There is a book by Ted Nelson—who invented the terms “hypertext” and “hypermedia”—in which Tim is depicted as Don Quixote and Robert as Sancho Panza. Tim had all the great ideas and was like on another planet, and Robert, like Sancho, helped him keep his feet on the ground to make them happen.3
  • I am still amazed by the size of the Web nowadays. At the very beginning, we thought people would not remember how to spell HTTP, something so strange at the time. Today it is so universal that nobody seems to have any problems whatsoever.
  • A.P.:

  • Bebo, you took the Web technology with you, back to California, when you returned from CERN, and you collaborated in the launch of the first website in the United States. You are considered to be the “first American Webmaster” and one of the founders of the discipline of Web engineering. I think people did not realize at the beginning how important it was. They thought it was just a nice computer toy, as you once said in an interview.
  • Was it really like that?
  • B.W.:

  • Yes, at the beginning, physicists at SLAC/Stanford saw it as an exercise dreamed up by some computer geeks, but when they realized it made their job a lot easier and that they had more time for doing physics instead of computer work, they were anxious to adopt its use.
  • A.P.:

  • You said that you think it is important for the Web—developed by a small group of pioneers at CERN, you included—to keep its democratic nature. In an interview you said: you go to a website and at first you can’t tell if it is the website of a large corporation or if a thirteen-year-old made it at home in the garage. Both the corporation and the child can use the same medium, the Web.
  • Is it important for you to have a free and open Internet?
  • (p.151) B.W.:

  • There are two parts to that question. As for the first part, an open Internet is essential. In fact, some previous systems did not work for that reason, so it is definitely essential.
  • Then there is the issue of the validity or provenance of the data on it; that is another important aspect. To know if such data are valid, you need to be sure where they come from. The validity of data is essential, especially now with the increasing use of the Web for science. A student must be confident that references are valid, that they come from a qualified authority. So, for example, if you are sick and you want to check the opinion that someone gives you about your illness, you should be able to tell whether that person really knows what he or she is are talking about, or if it is someone who simply has an opinion.
  • A.P.:

  • But in today’s world, on Web 2.0, Wikipedia is a high-level way of learning and knowing things, finding knowledge and information, I think. And yet the academic world and the big publishers criticized Wikipedia at the beginning. Some still do: they say it is not a proper encyclopedia, that the information is not reliable enough. What do you think?
  • B.W.:

  • The case of Wikipedia is very interesting because no one could have predicted that something like it would eventually exist and effectively make traditional encyclopedias obsolete. It is a huge collaborative environment and effort. Even the greatest encyclopedias have editors, and those encyclopedias reflect the views of their editors. With Wikipedia there is not a single editor, there are potentially thousands of editors, and the intention or the usual effect is that the valid information is finally condensed. Can I give you another example?
  • A.P.:

  • Of course.
  • B.W.:

  • You mentioned Web 2.0; a good example is Amazon. Amazon’s main business is to sell books, but it allows its users to post reviews on the books Amazon sells. So in the end, all these reviews become part of the corpus of a book. And then a user or a potential buyer of the book finds and reads the reviews, and so he or she also becomes part of this whole network of knowledge about the book.
  • A.P.:

  • Bebo, let me go back to the first period of the Internet, and then we will talk about the present. You said that being so close to the explosive growth of the Internet at the time, right in the place where it all started, was exciting and overwhelming. You said it was like being in the eye of a hurricane, of a great storm. The explosion of Web 2.0, the Social Web, something which is now happening all over the world—do you think it is equally amazing?
  • (p.152) B.W.:

  • Yes. At the beginning, the Web was fundamentally a method for making information readily and easily available; that was it. However, few people realize that Tim B-L’s original proposal included a social component. With Web 2.0, we have seen that component realized. The so-called Social Web is more a space where people can meet up and interact with each other. It is a fundamental part of the Web’s evolution and is here to stay.
  • A.P.:

  • Let’s talk about the Social Web, Web 2.0. Social media are booming, it is the “hype cycle.” Billions of people interact on social media. If they were countries, Facebook and its 1.71 billion users would be the first-largest country in the world; Whatsapp, with a user base of more than one billion would be second; Facebook Messenger with 1 billion active users per month would be third; QQ, the instant messaging service of China’s social media, with 899 billion active users monthly, would rank fourth; WeChat, a chinese instant messaging cross-platform with 806 million users, would be fifth; QZone, the Chinese social network, with 652 million, would be sixth.4 All of them have more “inhabitants” than the United States. What do you think about this? Does this change people’s relationships in today’s world? Why do you think international public spheres do not seem to care about this?
  • B.W.:

  • Well, relationships change in line with uses on the Web. That is, some people participate as a way of advertising themselves; some people want to be stars and have lots of contacts. But for many other people it is the way they communicate and cooperate with one another. A case that illustrates this very well is Barack Obama’s early campaign and its use of social media; it did help him win the presidency of the United States. I think that the Web has significantly impacted all of human communication, not just what happens online. It has opened the door for significant discussion to a global audience on such issues as privacy, censorship, human rights, and much more.
  • A.P.:

  • Lately, in many European technology forums I attended, everybody seems to talk about the economic crisis. Usually, in IW3C2 Conferences5—the World Wide Web meetings (and you go to most of them)—you don’t hear a word about the crisis, not even in European ones.
  • Is it because of the optimism that characterizes people like Tim BernersLee, Vinton Cerf, and yourself?
  • B.W.:

  • The WWW Conference Series is primarily an academic research conference dominated by computer scientists. Discussions of economic issues (p.153) have appeared (largely in keynotes, workshops, panels, and the like) but are not core to the conference mission (except when they impact research funding). The economic issue does appear in the Web science community where the audience includes social scientists and economists. It also appears in discussions about e-government (or open government) and the Web and society.
  • A.P.:

  • I’d like to turn now to one or two topics that are seen as quite critical these days. One of these concerns the HTTP protocol. Not so long ago, Dean Barker posted an article titled “We Suck at HTTP” in which he criticized those who develop apps for having abandoned the standards that underlie HTTP and URL. Baker wrote, “Narcissism runs rampant in this industry, and our willingness to throw away and ignore some of the core philosophies of HTTP is just one manifestation of this.”6 Then again, the New York Times writer Conor Dougherty expressed much the same opinion in a recent article in which he said, “Unlike web pages, mobile apps do not have links. They do not have web addresses. They live in worlds by themselves (“walled gardens”), largely cut off from one another and the broader Internet. And so it is much harder to share the information found on them.”7
  • Bebo, do you think that Barker is right to be indignant at the way those who develop apps disregard and reject the usual standards? Do you feel that there is indeed a problem of narcissism in the industry, or is it more a question of lack of knowledge and training on the part of the app developers of today that makes them disregard an important aspect of software development?
  • B.W.:

  • I so disagree with Conor Dougherty! Just because apps don’t have links does not mean they do not communicate with or access information from the Web. The Web is simply hidden from the user’s view (or recognition). The global database or library that is the Web is fundamentally accessed by URLs and URIs, so that means HTTP. It will be very counterproductive if app developers in their haste to get to the market decided to overlook or ignore the standards process.
  • A.P.:

  • Another topic of debate today is the complaint by one or two major Internet companies that have argued that the two full years required by W3C to establish standards for HTML5 is far too long for a fast-developing technological industry based on the Internet. They have called into question the scientific methods used by the W3C scientific community to determine standards. They argue that they’re simply unwilling to wait so long (p.154) and instead, at Google’s initiative, intend to create a group to establish standards within the time limit that “the industry requires.”
  • Do you think that these companies are being pressurized to some extent by Wall Street or by a desire for greater speed that comes from shareholders? Or is it really more that these interest groups don’t like such standards being determined by W3C and the scientific community, which have greater regard for what Internet users really need than for corporate requirements? Could it be that industry is keen to assume the power that W3C currently holds to determine Internet standards in order to shape them to its own liking? What do you think of such an argument?
  • B.W.:

  • One of the greatest threats to the future of the Web and to bringing it to its fullest potential is to ignore or bypass open standards. The success of the Web is in part due to the fact that it is not a corporate product—that was always Tim B-L’s intention. If its features and functionalities are driven by business models, special interest groups, or corporate competition, we would likely lose control of one of humanity’s greatest resources because of a loss of interoperability and a development process based on self-interest. We all need to work together to keep this from happening.
  • A.P.:

  • Bebo, thank you ever so much for this conversation.
  • B.W.:

  • Thank you very much.
  • At CERN … physicists and engineers are probing the fundamental structure of the universe. They use the world's largest and most complex scientific instruments to study the basic constituents of matter—the fundamental particles. The particles are made to collide together at close to the speed of light. The process gives the physicists clues about how the particles interact, and provides insights into the fundamental laws of nature. (http://home.cern/about)


    (1.) Information on Stanford University’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory can be found on its website (https://www6.slac.stanford.edu/about/slac-overview.aspx).

    (2.) CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, located near Geneva, describes itself and its research programs this way:

    (3.) Ted Nelson, Geeks Bearing Gifts: How the Computer World Got This Way (Sausalito, CA: Mindful Press, 2008).

    (4.) Statista, “Leading Social Networks Worldwide as of September 2016,” http://www.statista.com/statistics/272014/global-social-networks-ranked-by-number-of-users.

    (p.155) (5.) IW3C2 refers to the International World Wide Web Conferences Steering Committee (http://www.iw3c2.org/conferences).

    (6.) Deane Barker, “We Suck at HTTP,” Gadgetopia, January 7, 2015, http://gadgetopia.com/post/9236.

    (7.) Conor Dougherty, “Apps Everywhere, but No Unifying Link,” New York Times, January 5, 2015, http://nyti.ms/1xNyadV. (p.156)