A beast about to be tamed

January 12, 1996

Alison McNab and Ian Winship point to the best of the Web for novice and experienced scientists.

Many people's experience of the Internet is a frustrating one, with connections being slow and useful information often hard to find among collections of indifferent sources, many often being no more than advertising or publicity for the organisations concerned.

The organisation and dissemination of research information has always taken much time and money and this information is still largely to be found by using commercial databases like Chemical Abstracts and INSPEC or printed data collections.

However, the situation is beginning to change and we offer brief guidance to some interesting Internet sources in the science and engineering areas as examples of useful information on the Net, including that less easily obtained in other ways. Indeed, some resources deliver information in ways that have no printed equivalent, such as hypertext learning material, laboratory simulations or interactive techniques.

In the academic community the BIDS bibliographic databases (details at http://www.bids.ac.uk) should be of value to all. Strictly speaking these are Joint Academic Network (JANET) rather than Internet sources as they are available on corporate subscription only to United Kingdom users in education and research. The general databases - ISI and Inside Information - can cover only the major journals in any area so have limitations for research use, but Compendex is the equivalent of the printed Engineering Index and so has a comprehensive coverage of journals and conferences in all aspects of engineering from the past 20 years. A number of databases from the Royal Society of Chemistry will be added soon. Most universities are BIDS subscribers.

A database available at no charge is the Wellcome Centre for Medical Science's Science Policy Information News (telnet://wisdom.wellcome.ac.uk and login as wisdom). This is updated weekly and contains abstracts of science policy articles from more than 150 journals.

If you are a newcomer to the Internet then the way to begin finding out what there is in your subject is to consult a subject collection like the UK BUBL Subject Tree (http://www.bubl.bath.ac.uk/BUBL/cattree.html) which groups together varied resources - WorldWide Web, gopher, discussion lists, archives - in topic areas like materials, mathematics and so on.

There are also similar US based groupings such as Yahoo (http://www.yahoo.com) and the World Wide Web Virtual Library (http://www.w3.org/hypertext/DataSources/bySubject/Overview.html) which will also include recreational sources as well as more academic ones. These services are not usually able to give more than a brief indication of the content of sources.

However, two projects from the Electronic Libraries initiative of the Higher Education Funding Councils (http://ukoln.bath.ac.uk/elib/intro.html) will be more selective and critical about content. EEVL (Edinburgh Engineering VirtualLibrary) (http://eevl.icbl.hw.ac.uk) and OMNI (Organising Med-ical Networked Information) (http://omni.ac.uk) - for biomedicine - are collaborative projects being developed.

Some Net sites try to mirror and improve on more traditional means of scientific communication. The Los Alamos E-Print Archive (http://xxx.lanl.gov/) is a fully automated electronic archive and distribution server for research papers in physics. Started in 1991, it provides an archive for distribution of electronic preprints. Subscribers receive a listing of title/author/abstract information for newly submitted papers on the day the paper is received, and can retrieve the full papers from the archive.The archive provides for distribution list maintenance, paper updating, macro package archiving, and primitive searching of papers.

The Net is a prime information source about computing.

The Internet Computer Index (http://ici.proper.com) aims to be a one-stop shop for everything that is known on the Net about PCs, Macintoshes, and Unix systems. ICI offers access to hundreds of worldwide databases, special interest groups, files, listings of magazine articles about a given topic, and more. ICI is supported by commercial sponsors who add up-to-date information about their products.

Similarly wide ranging is CREST, the US Centre for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technology (http://solstice.crest.org) which has papers, case studies and links to other sites relating to energy sources and energy efficiency.

Other sites gather news of developments, conferences and other events in a specific subject. There are a number of such sources based in the UK.

The Corrosion Information Server (http://www.cp.umist.ac.uk) at the University of Manchester Institute for Science and Technology has details of educational resources, conferences, job vacancies, Net links, corrosion companies and services and the refereed electronic Journal of corrosion science and engineering. Warwick University maintains information relating to manufacturing (http://www. warwick.ac.uk/esrjf/manufact.html) covering such topics as product introduction, manufacturing strategy, and grants. There are links to other resources including a database of abstracts. A Web-based newsletter is produced.

The computer aided design centre at Strathclyde University (http://www.cad.strath.ac.uk/ EngInfoGuide.html) gathers information on engineering design and provides access by sectors such as aerospace and manufacturing and by topics such as concurrent engineering.

Professional bodies and scholarly societies provide Web pages on their activities. These may include electronic text from the society's publications and links to related resources, although some only give information about the organisation. The Scholarly Societies Project (http://www.lib. uwaterloo.ca/ society/overview.html) was created to ease access to information about scholarly societies across the world. About 600 organisations are included.

The Net can be helpful for gathering and distributing scientific data since the number of potential collaborators is immense and the speed of dissemination can be very rapid.

The SPYDER service (http://www.iris.washington.edu) has up-to-date details of earthquakes, gathered automatically from monitoring stations around the world. Similarly the Air Quality Information Service provided by the National Environmental Technical Centre (http://www.aeat.co.uk/ products/centre/netcen/airqual/welcome.html) shows daily levels of pollutants in various UK locations.

The Chip Directory (http://www.xs4all.nl/ ganswijk/chipdir/chipdir.html) gives property data for electronic components by part number and function. Some printout data is included. There are links to manufacturers' Net sites.

At a more practical level the Electrical Engineering Circuits Archive (http://weber.u.washington.edu/ pfloyd/ee/index.html) is a collection of circuit diagrams and design notes arranged in subject groups. Some of the files are in ASCII format, others need Postscript output.

The Chemical Database Service (http://www.dl.ac.uk/CDS/cds.html) at Daresbury has been providing chemical databases to the UK academic community for many years in the areas of crystallography, synthetic organic reactions, spectroscopy and physical chemistry. Part of the service, the Computer Physics Communications Program Library (http://www.niss.ac.uk/cgi-bin/wrap?wais://wais.niss.ac.uk/CPC.src) contains more than 1,300 refereed programs in physics and physical chemistry. Detailed descriptions are published in the North-Holland journal Computer-Physics Communications.

Sheffield Chemdex (http://www. shef.ac.uk/chem/chemdex/) is a listing of chemistry Net services and is integrated with WebElements (http://www.shef.ac.uk/ chem/web-elements/ web-elements-home.html), the Periodic Table database. WebElements is a collection of 5,500 files about the periodic table, including pictorial representations of periodic properties, and some interactive utilities.

Biomaterials Properties at the University of Michigan (gopher://una.hh.lib.umich.edu/11/ science/lifesci/dent/) is a constantly updated database of materials properties based on W J. O'Brien's Dental materials: properties and selection, 1989. Included are physical, mechanical and thermodynamic properties, and the materials included are no longer just dental.

A useful reference document of a different kind is the catalogue of standards from ISO, the international standards body (http://www. iso.ch/index.html) which can be searched by subject. The catalogue is of value even though few universities have any ISO standards as most new standards are published simultaneously as British Standards which are more readily available.

The Net is also becoming important as a means of developing and distributing teaching material. Though little of the material being produced by the major UK initiative, the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme, is available across the Net, details of the programme and its teaching packages can be found at http://www.icbl.hw.ac.uk/tltp/ The Virtual FlyLab (http:// vflylab.calstatela.edu/edesktop/ VirtApps/VflyLab/IntroVflyLab. html) is an application for learning the principles of genetic inheritance. Users select variables for male and female fruit flies. They can then virtually "mate" the parent flies, and a document is returned with the images of the resulting offspring. The program applies the correct rules of genetic inheritance, thus enabling the student to determine the rules from the results of the experiment.

The Virtual Frog Dissection project (http://george.lbl.gov/vfrog) can be considered as a humane and cost-effective alternative to laboratory dissection. The virtual dissection approach provides a realistic representation of the internal 3D structure of animals in a way that physical dissection can only imply, as organs and structures may be examined in their original relationship to one another. The high quality 3D images include computer similation and animation in addition to video from a real dissection. Another visualisation application is the Visible Human Project (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/ extramural_research.dir/ visible_human.html) which is creating complete, anatomically detailed, three-dimensional representations of the male and female human body.

Polymer Liquid Crystals (http://abalone.phys.cwru.edu/files/about.html) is a pilot program produced by cooperative effort between Case Western Reserve University and Kent State University. It provides a basic introduction to the fields of polymers, liquid crystals, and polymer liquid crystals, and at the same time demonstrates the advantages of this hypertext format as an educational tool. Polymer Liquid Crystals employs many techniques impossible in conventional text: animations and Quicktime movies are included, and users can study polymer growth or liquid crystal phase changes in a unique "virtual laboratory".

The Principles of Protein Structure course (http://www. cryst.bbk.ac.uk/PPS2/) was a pioneering experiment in the delivery of knowledge using the Web. The course was run from last January to June by Birkbeck College, University of London, and an enhanced version of the course is offered now as an accredited University of London Advanced Certificate.

TalkingPower (http://www. att.com/TALKINGPOWER/) is a demonstration networked hypermedia training package from the US telecommunications company AT&T. It deals with electricity in the telephone system and includes a performance support system, a kind of online help, on telecommunications batteries.

The Mathematics Archives (http://archives.math.utk.edu:80) seek to provide organised Net access to a wide variety of mathematical resources. The primary emphasis is on materials which are used in the teaching of mathematics, with an extensive collection of educational software, as well as laboratory notebooks, problem sets, lecture notes and reports on innovative methods. More narrow in its concerns is the Engineering Case Library at Carleton University in Canada (http://www.civeng.carleton. ca/ECL/) which has abstracts of over 250 case studies of design projects in all aspects of engineering, including analyses of failures. Some are available electronically and the database can be searched by subject. There is guidance on the use of case studies in engineering education.

The Science Museum (http://www.nmsi.ac.uk/ Welcome.html) and the Natural History Museum (http://www. nhm.ac.uk/) offer a range of information on their exhibitions and publications, access to their respective library catalogues, and useful links to other servers in the same subject area. The Science Museum's pages include attempts to explore the educational potential of the Net as a real-time, interactive communication system between remote users.

Finally, although there is an increasing number of robotic devices being attached to the Web, the Bradford Robotic Telescope (http://www.telescope.org/ rti/) is possibly one of the most interesting. This remote, autonomous 45cm telescope on the West Yorkshire moors decides when the weather conditions are good enough to make observations of the sky. Weather information is updated daily. Anyone can register and control the telescope, submit jobs (asking the telescope to look at any object in the northern night sky), and view the results of their observation.

Alison McNab, is faculty librarian at the Pilkington Library, Loughborough University of Technology (a.s.mcnab@lut.ac.uk).

Ian Winship, is academic services manager, information services department, University of Northumbria at Newcastle (ian.winship@unn.ac.uk)

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments