Search Engines: Serendipity The benefits of giggling

HUMPHREY Davy, one of the most distinguished scientists of the 19th century, received a knighthood in 1812. One of his earliest discoveries, though, shows him in a distinctly frivolous light. At the age of 20 he began experimenting with nitrous oxide, and was the first person to note its peculiar psychological effects. In a letter to the appropriately named Mr Giddy, Davy explained that inhaling the gas "made me dance about the laboratory as a madman, and had kept my spirits in a glow ever since".

Davy considered selling nitrous oxide, better known as laughing gas, as a cheap alternative to alcohol, but instead he simply held laughing gas parties, which were attended by such eminent figures as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Peter Roget of Roget's Thesaurus. The idea caught on, and soon many Victorians were using laughing gas as a recreational drug.

In America, touring shows demonstrated the freakish effects of the gas on volunteers. In 1844 in Hartford, Connecticut, it was said that "some danced, some sang, others made impassioned orations, or indulged in serious arguments with imaginary opponents". Samuel Cooley was invited on to the stage to inhale the gas, but he reacted violently, fell, injured himself, and was helped back to his seat. Later, an audience member made the following observation: "Presently he [Cooley] was seen to roll up his trousers and gaze in a puzzled sort of way at an excoriated and bloody leg." Cooley had severely gashed his leg, but apparently felt no pain and was unaware of his injury until he saw the blood.

Cooley had been accompanied to the show by a dentist called Horace Wells. For Wells, the whole episode resulted in a serendipitous revelation, because he realised that the laughing gas had made Cooley impervious to pain. A few days later, Wells tested the gas on himself and had one of his own teeth extracted by a colleague. The extraction was painless, and thereafter the use of laughing gas as an anaesthetic gradually spread.

For the last 150 years, laughing gas has been used to remove pain in situations ranging from dentistry to childbirth, but it was only last year that scientists finally had a clue as to how it works. A research group at Washington University, St Louis, discovered that laughing gas targets a brain receptor known as the NMDA (N-methyl-D- aspartate) receptor, which seems to play several key roles in the central nervous system.

As a result, researchers can begin to study the effects of laughing gas in detail, examining how it interacts with the brain, looking for side effects and possible benefits. For example, the NMDA receptor has been implicated in exacerbating the death of brain neurons during head injuries. One idea is to administer laughing gas soon after a head injury, which would target and block these receptors, thereby minimising the damage to neurons. This research is still at an early stage, but further study is under way.

IF THERE was one event which showed that the sea has really changed, it was the success of the Dixons' free Internet service, Freeserve. Within a few weeks, 900,000 people signed up - around one in 50 of the adult population. At the beginning of this month, Tesco announced that holders of its loyalty card could also have Internet access for nothing. Immediately, Freeserve cut the price of its technical support phonelines to 50p a minute, halving the one cost of their service. With major High Street retailers fighting among themselves to give Internet services away, and the public signing up in droves, it looks as though the Net is now one of our mass media. Real people are getting on line.

I began to notice signs this was imminent last summer. Previously unwired journalists took to e-mail like ducks to water, and it at last became the standard communication medium within the electronic messaging systems to communicate across office networks. All it took was for these systems to be connected to the rest of the world. based industries, large and small, where it hasn't already done so. At the moment, e-mail is still a novelty in many quarters. With each Microsoft release, office workers of the world are carried another step towards total messaging, global and local. The preview copies of the Office 2000 suite come with one loud clear message: The network is everytment, e-mhing.

It was also last summer that Charles Jonscher realised how big the Net was going to be. In his book Wired Life (Bantam), he recalls overhearing two elderly couples exchanging addresses after a guided tour of a tourist quite routinely and with no comments. They had reached the stage where asking whether somebody was on the Internet was as unnecessary as asking whether they were on the far hence, you will be those people.In the meantime, we're faced with the question of how to make sense of it all. When I first started writing a digital culture column in the Sunday Review, nearly three years ago, the prevailing prejudice was that the Internet contained nothing but trivia and nastiness. By the time we changed to a graphic format, I was confident that people accepted the Net was interesting, but not so sure that they considered it to be useful. By now, the practical value of the Internet is beyond argument. The difficulty is in standing its implications is more important than eveve been shove been sment, e- mhor.

The latest myth about the Net is that it is like the High Street. The corner shops have been squeezed out by the big players, the disreputable elements have been shooed out of the pedestrian precincts, and the whole thing is set to become one vastoccess and systems to be connected to the rest of the world. a mailbox, standard into a site or a disc. If there's a worrying question for digital culture, it's whether people will continue to work for the Web's sake now that there's real money to be made.