NY Times June 19, 2001

Web Archive Opens a New Realm of Research

James Glantz

Lubos Motl, an undergraduate physics student at Charles University in Prague, was not feeling very cheerful over the Christmas holidays in 1996. His family was shaken by instability, he was suffering chronic stomach pain and he had just been hospitalized after a serious accident at home. And no one at the university knew much about his scientific passion, a highly abstract and mathematical area of physics called string theory.

To overcome his personal difficulties, Mr. Motl could only call upon what turned out to be a remarkable internal resiliency. But his scientific challenges had a more straightforward solution: an electronic, Web-based archive centered at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

The archive is transforming the quality of scientific research at institutions that are geographically isolated and, in many cases, small and financially precarious. It nurtures top-flight research in countries as disparate as Bulgaria, Colombia, Cuba, Ukraine, Iran, India, Romania, Russia, Israel, the Czech Republic and Zambia.

Mr. Motl posted a research paper on the archive and the results were flabbergasting. Established string theorists were so impressed by his work that he ended up with a scholarship to Rutgers, where he is completing his doctorate.

"I was at first a little annoyed by the first paper, because it scooped me," said Dr. Thomas Banks, a physicist at Rutgers and the University of California at Santa Cruz and one of string theory's prime innovators, who had been working out a similar idea. "This feeling turned to awe when I realized that Lubos was still an undergraduate."

Mr. Motl is a striking example of how the archive is changing physics.

"It freed the third world from the need to be in Princeton, Pasadena or Paris in order to do frontier research," said Dr. Jorge Zanelli, a professor of physics at the Center for Scientific Studies in Valdivia, Chile, a small town 500 miles south of Santiago.

Founded 10 years ago by a Los Alamos particle theorist, Dr. Paul Ginsparg, the archive at first drew interest largely within the United States, but it now attracts some two million visits a week, more than two-thirds of them from institutions abroad. With 35,000 new paper submissions expected in 2001 alone, the archive provides a front-row view of the hottest developments in a given field of research.

Dr. Ginsparg said the archive, which receives a total of about $300,000 of financing each year from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and Los Alamos National Laboratory, was not necessarily intended to reach scientists outside the United States, but their interest was not unexpected.

Besides spreading new ideas and concepts, he added, the archive has encouraged multinational collaboration.

"The way these research networks form, and the mutual respect they engender, implicitly reinforces global understanding across sometimes very different participating cultures," Dr. Ginsparg said. "Geopolitical boundaries are invisible to the Internet."

About half the visitors are scientists who connect directly to the main site in Los Alamos, and the other half are those who use one of 16 sites around the world where the archive has been duplicated to speed connections. Scientists may post their work at any stage, even before it has been reviewed by their peers. Scientists generally replace early drafts with edited versions if a paper is published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Dr. S. Peter Rosen, associate director for high-energy and nuclear physics in the Energy Department's office of science, said he had expected participation in the archive from scientists at major research centers outside the United States, especially where close cultural ties to this country already exist. "The surprise is Tehran and Havana," Dr. Rosen said.

Indeed, the difficulty of receiving paper journals promptly from the United States and other Western countries makes the Los Alamos archive indispensable for scientists in Iran, said Dr. Farhad Ardalan, head of the physics department at the Institute for Theoretical Physics and Mathematics and a professor at Sharif University, both in Tehran.

Another Iranian scientist, Dr. Ramin Golestanian, a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Basic Sciences in Zanjan, about 200 miles northwest of Tehran, said that as scientists learned to take advantage of the archive, it would "eventually give everyone an equal opportunity to take part in the worldwide science competition, which is a noble achievement."

In Cuba, Dr. Israel Quiros, a physics professor at the Las Villas Central University near Santa Clara, said the archive had become his group's principal connection with the outside world since it became available two years ago. His university has essentially no scientific library.

"Opinions and advice from colleagues of other countries made our work go in the right direction, and institutional interest increased," Dr. Quiros said. "In this sense, the archive was the way we entered the world-class research."

Scientists from a wide variety of institutions, even those with a long history of producing major research, speak almost with one voice on the importance of what has become a kind of worldwide movement.

"It is difficult to overestimate the role of the archive in the modern scientific work," said Dr. Irina Aref'eva, a professor at the Steklov Mathematical Institute in the Russian Academy of Science in Moscow.

One explanation for the resounding influence of the archive is its price; it is free, unlike scientific journals whose subscriptions — often hundreds of dollars a year or more — put them out of the reach of many institutions.

"The first thing I do in the morning is to check the archive for latest papers in my area of research," said Dr. Radostin Georgiev Kurtev, an astrophysicist at Sofia University in Bulgaria, whose nonsalary research budget for his small group is virtually nothing.

Also, in many countries, paper journals may arrive months late, whereas downloading a fresh paper from the archive generally takes 30 seconds or less, even with a very ordinary Internet connection.

File Date: 6.23.01