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March 2010

Thorp: Google would be ultimate hookup for Google

In these days when the resources of the world are instantly at your fingertips with a click of a BlackBerry wheel or a tap on an iPod Touch, it’s hard to imagine that people used to wait for days and show up at odd, overnight hours for the privilege of running a program on the computer at Carolina.

A celebration on campus earlier this month, 50 Years of Computing at Carolina, reminded us of those days and of computing pioneers like Professor Fred Brooks, who gave the keynote address. A distinguished panel that included Nobel prize-winner Oliver Smithies, innovative professors Joe DeSimone from chemistry and Etta Pisano from medicine and entrepreneurial alumnus John Q. Walker of Zenph Sound Innovations led a lively discussion about just how far we’ve come in computer science in the past five decades.

That first Univac 1105 computer was a monster, a 63,753-pound behemoth that required steel beams embedded in the cement of the Phillips Hall basement to support it. But even at that size, its memory was tiny in today’s terms, less than 50 kilobytes, the equivalent of one scanned 8½-by-11-inch document page.

Flash forward to today, when search engines like Google bring information from around the world to our handhelds and laptops in seconds. And now Google is searching for a few lucky communities where it will install high-speed fiber optic networks that will deliver Internet services at 1 gigabit per second, more than 100 times faster than the speeds available to most Americans today.

Carolina has joined with the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro to apply for Google’s ultra-high speed Internet project. With all the research and discovery already happening on campus, the mind boggles at what we could accomplish if all our faculty, staff, students and community members could connect to UNC at 100 times the speed available today.

There’s even a practical reason for Google to choose us for its project, since the two towns are already partnering with the state Department of Transportation to install a municipal fiber network that will lay the backbone of an ultra-high speed network.

But I have a feeling that Google won’t be making its selection based just on practical reasons. Google is looking for a community that will give it enthusiastic support (not to mention free publicity). Topeka, Kan., temporarily renamed itself Google. The mayor of Sarasota, Fla., jumped into a shark tank to get Google’s attention.

Now I’m not saying Mayor Kleinschmidt needs to go that far, and “UNC-Google” doesn’t have the same magic to it as UNC Chapel Hill. But I’m sure if we put our creative minds to work, we can come up with some clever ways to catch Google’s eye. Come to think of it, don’t the way Rameses’ horns curl remind you of the lower-case E in Google? And the Bell Tower looks like the L. Something like this …

The Google application was due on Friday, but that doesn’t mean our community campaign has to stop. Great Googly Moogly, as Frank Zappa would say, let’s get Googling!


Holden Thorp is chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Readers can contact him at

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