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CD-ROM Review - Secrets of the Universe - Softkey/Science Museum 

 

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The main theme here is astrophysics - the big bang, space and all that good stuff, but it also strays into a fair amount of quantum theory and even has a section on the nature of reality, which is keyed in to the bizarre subject of quantum entanglement.

The CD-ROM has three hours of video, much of it in the form of an animated graphic with a cut out talking head superimposed, and various sections exploring different aspects of astrophysics and quantum physics, a "lab" for trying various experiments, an effective bibliography and more.

It really is all excellent stuff - but there are three quite significant problems.

The first is - who is it aimed at? When I first saw the product (both in the packaging and the menu structures which are very chunky and graphic oriented), it seemed obvious that this was for children. But when you get to any of the content it seems more appropriate for readers of many adult popular science books. It looks worryingly like adult material in kids' packaging, guaranteed to turn both off. The language is certainly not aimed at children - take this all-too typical quote: "The existence of permanent properties is in fact at the heart of the debate on physical reality which Einstein instigated in the 1930s." Hmm.

Secondly I'm really not convinced this is the right way to present this material. A TV series would work well for a flashy overview; a good book would give you the depth to luxuriate in the subject matter - but the CD-ROM doesn't have the enjoyment factor of either.

Worst of all, it is very clear as soon as you have listened to someone like Kip Thorne for more than 10 seconds that many scientists simply aren't great communicators. The majority of the straight information transfer on the CD is from scientists' talking heads, and I have been to university lectures that had more excitement value than some of these talks.

The last impression I want to give is that it's all bad. It's worth buying the CD just to see Alain Aspect in action - the dynamic French physicist who as little more than a graduate student in the 1980s managed to demonstrate entanglement and effectively prove Einstein wrong. With his almost Dali-esque moustache he's great value for money (though it's a shame he couldn't manage the English and has to be voiced over by a translator). And there are some excellent demonstrations and explorations that show that a CD-ROM like this has a place in education. But it simply lacks that essential spark.

According to the blurb, this CD-ROM works on both PCs and Macs - we have only tested it on a PC.

Reviewed by Brian Clegg

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Last update 05 June 2007