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CD-ROM Review - The History of the Universe - Ransom 


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Sometimes you've just got to admire someone's daring in terms of scope - and let's face it, it's hard to go more extreme than producing a history of the whole universe. It's hard not to think that to get everything in, the detail is going to be as compressed as the Earth's entry in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy according to Douglas Adams - "Harmless". (Later amended to "Mostly Harmless".)*

The CD-ROM has a lot going for it. It's split into "ideas", "thinking", "brain elastic" and timeline sections. The ideas section explores significant concepts in cosmology and fundamental physics. Mechanics, gravity, relativity, quantum mechanics, the big bang... it's all there, apart from the most modern developments in string/M-theory. The thinking section lets you test what you've learned, and brain elastic is explores fun and mind-stretching aspects of the detail. (The timelines are, well, timelines.) There's rather a lot of talking (in a pleasant, transatlantic tone) over regularly changing backdrops which animate a bit, but the title shows its age a little in the lack of opportunity interaction with the graphics, and the limited animation.

Then there's the PDA, a neat little text widget that lets you read around the subject.

Mostly the content is good, though it's slightly off-beam on a few details of relativity/quantum mechanics. A couple of examples: in the (hard) questions section it asks "what would happen if you rode a beam of light" and the answer is "time would stand still for you". In fact, relativity says someone in a "fixed" position would see your time standing still - you would think time was ticking away at the same old second per second.

Another example - it says that Einstein's famous attempt to attack quantum mechanics, the EPR paper, says that either quantum theory or special relativity is wrong. In fact the paper doesn't mention relativity. It says that either quantum theory is incomplete (not "wrong") or local reality (the idea that particles have fixed properties and don't magically act a distance) is untrue. The difference is subtle but profound. Entanglement, the feature of quantum theory demonstrated in EPR doesn't contradict relativity as you can't send any information that way. It's against the spirit of relativity, but it doesn't break the rules. Again, I think the product shows its age when it says "Unfortunately in actual experiments the [EPR] experiment has proved correct." Why unfortunately? Quantum theory not only works profoundly well, it is being used by all of us all the time, for example in all the electronics we take for granted every day.

But these are detailed and infrequent niggles. All in all, it's an educational and enjoyable (always a hard combination) title for teens and adults alike. The only problem is its age. As you'll see below, it doesn't work at all under Windows XP unless you fiddle around a bit. So the report card: could do with a little content updating and graphical enhancement, plus XP compatibility, and then it would be excellent. As it is, still VG.

CD-ROM for Windows 3.x and above. Warning - won't run directly under Windows XP. This will get it to work:

Don't install the program as you are prompted to do when the CD is put in your computer.

1 Right click on the History of the Universe CD icon and select Explore. A window will open showing the contents of the CD-ROM disk.

2 Right click on the file UNI31.EXE and select Properties.

3 Click on the Compatibility tab at the top.

4 Tick the box "Run this program in compatibility mode for" and make sure Windows 95 is selected.

5 Click OK.

6 Double click on UNI31.EXE to start the program.

Once you've done this you can run UNI31.EXE without going through the procedure again.

* I felt the urge to comment on HHGTTG both here and in the review of the companion product The History of Life. It must be something to do with the sweeping titles!

Reviewed by Brian Clegg


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Last update 05 June 2007