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
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there