There are many ways you can plug into the Ethereum network, one of the easiest ways is to use its native Mist browser. Mist provides a user-friendly interface & digital wallet for users to trade & store Ether as well as write, manage, deploy and use smart contracts. Like web browsers give access and help people navigate the internet, Mist provides a portal into the world of decentralized blockchain applications.

Smart contract is just a phrase used to describe a computer code that can facilitate the exchange of money, content, property, shares, or anything of value. When running on the blockchain a smart contract becomes like a self-operating computer program that automatically executes when specific conditions are met. Because smart contracts run on the blockchain, they run exactly as programmed without any possibility of censorship, downtime, fraud or third-party interference.
^ Iansiti, Marco; Lakhani, Karim R. (January 2017). "The Truth About Blockchain". Harvard Business Review. Harvard University. Retrieved 17 January 2017. The technology at the heart of bitcoin and other virtual currencies, blockchain is an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way.
Ethereum's blockchain uses Merkle trees, for security reasons, to improve scalability, and to optimize transaction hashing.[60] As with any Merkle tree implementation, it allows for storage savings, set membership proofs (called "Merkle proofs"), and light client synchronization. The Ethereum network has at times faced congestion problems, for example, congestion occurred during late 2017 in relation to Cryptokitties.[61]
To be accepted by the rest of the network, a new block must contain a proof-of-work (PoW).[79] The system used is based on Adam Back's 1997 anti-spam scheme, Hashcash.[90][failed verification][4] The PoW requires miners to find a number called a nonce, such that when the block content is hashed along with the nonce, the result is numerically smaller than the network's difficulty target.[7]:ch. 8 This proof is easy for any node in the network to verify, but extremely time-consuming to generate, as for a secure cryptographic hash, miners must try many different nonce values (usually the sequence of tested values is the ascending natural numbers: 0, 1, 2, 3, ...[7]:ch. 8) before meeting the difficulty target.
While it’s still early days, Mist, MetaMask and a variety of other browsers look set to make blockchain-based applications accessible to more people than ever before. Even people without a technical background can now potentially build blockchain apps. This is a revolutionary leap for blockchain technology that could bring decentralized applications into the mainstream.
Transactions are verified by network nodes through cryptography and recorded in a public distributed ledger called a blockchain. Bitcoin was invented in 2008 by an unknown person or group of people using the name Satoshi Nakamoto[15] and started in 2009[16] when its source code was released as open-source software.[7]:ch. 1 Bitcoins are created as a reward for a process known as mining. They can be exchanged for other currencies, products, and services.[17] Research produced by University of Cambridge estimates that in 2017, there were 2.9 to 5.8 million unique users using a cryptocurrency wallet, most of them using bitcoin.[18]