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.

Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' embraces politics, religion, warfare, courage, love and loyalty, say creators
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

film
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
News
peopleThe Game of Thrones author said speculation about his health and death was 'offensive'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Arts and Entertainment
Sassoon threw his Military Cross into the Mersey
booksAn early draft of ‘Atrocities’ shows the anti-war sentiment was toned down before publication
Arts and Entertainment
Actors and technicians on the march against changes made by Hollande
theatreOpening performances of the Avignon theatre festival cancelled as actors and technicians walk out
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West performed in a chain mail mask at Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park
Rapper booed at Wireless over bizarre rant
Arts and Entertainment

They're back, they're big – and they're still spectacularly boring

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil