Tokens of Science: CD-ROMs

Monday, December 01, 1997
RELATED TAGS: GADGETS
It’s a pity there aren’t more good science CD-ROMs. These information warehouses, with their huge storage capacity for text, pictures, and software, offer virtually unlimited multimedia possibilities- -and yet most of them in fact deliver little more than can be found in comparable books or videotapes or Web sites. Still, there are a handful of fascinating, well-made cds out there that let you learn some science while making the most of their medium.

Working model, for example, is a program that allows engineers to test hypothetical bridges, backhoes, and other structures by painstakingly calculating the forces that act on objects many times each second. But you don’t have to be an engineer to enjoy it. For those who simply want to get a more intuitive sense of physics, this program is a lot of fun since you can build anything you want--a bouncing ball, a human being, an airplane-- and send it careering through a world of your own making.

The creators of Working Model also offer a less powerful but more explicitly educational (and affordable) version of the program called Interactive Physics. Children might also enjoy The Cartoon Guide to Physics, based on the work of Discover’s very own contributing cartoonist Larry Gonick, which teaches basic concepts of physics with blasting cannons and other irresistible attractions.

Working Model (Mac and PC, $495 for three-dimensional, $395 for two-dimensional) and Interactive Physics (Mac and pc, $249): Knowledge Revolution, 800-766-6615. The Cartoon Guide to Physics (Mac or pc, $19.95): Multicom, 206-622-5530.

Astronomy is perhaps the discipline best served by CD-ROMs, and one of the best titles available is Red Shift 2, a vast compendium of information about the sky designed to satisfy the space idiot and astro- freak alike. It calculates the positions of stars and planets at any location and time you choose, takes you on Comet Hale- Bopp’s flight through the solar system, and offers lessons in cosmology. Other notable titles include the Eyewitness Encyclopedia of Space and the Universe, an intelligently designed work aimed mainly at children; and For All Mankind, a documentary on CD-ROM of the Apollo program, which includes maps of the lunar voyages, diagrams, accounts of all the Apollo missions, and biographies of the astronauts.

Red Shift 2 (Mac or PC, $29.95): Maris Multimedia, 800-639-8717. The Eyewitness Encyclopedia of Space and the Universe (Mac or pc, $39.95): dk Publishing, 888-342-5357. For All Mankind (Mac or pc, $39.95): Voyager Publishing, 800-446-2001.

Looking back toward the home planet, you’ll find relatively few satisfying titles about Earth science. One of these is Volcanoes: Life on the Edge. It’s set up as a loose narrative of fearless photojournalist Roger Ressmeyer’s journeys to some of the world’s active volcanoes, with his beautiful photographs as the centerpiece. But along with them come movies, maps, and tutorials that make it more than just a coffee-table book hurled on the computer screen.

Two other CD-ROMs offer views of Earth from space. With Earth Observatorium you can sift through the thousands of pictures taken as part of nasa’s Mission to Planet Earth and learn how this ambitious project was pulled off. Meanwhile, Axion 3D World Atlas uses satellite data to create a gorgeously accurate map of the world, with abundant geographic data for all regions. You can zoom into any point for a higher-resolution image, down to less than a square mile.

Volcanoes: Life on the Edge (Mac and PC, $39.95): Corbis Web site, www.corbis.com. Earth Observatorium (Mac and PC, $59): Rocky Mountain Digital, 800-266-7637. Axion 3D World Atlas (pc only, $64.95): Axion Spatial Imaging, 403-423-4413, e-mail, axion@compusmart.ab.ca.

Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, who has offered groundbreaking ideas about evolution in books like The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, has long argued that computers are simply the newest stage in the evolution of information processing that started with DNA 4 billion years ago. It’s therefore not too surprising that he’s taken so amiably to CD-ROMs, putting his imprimatur on the entertaining The Evolution of Life. Dawkins lets you wander through a groovy, blob-shaped museum dedicated to his take on evolution, stopping here and there for lectures accompanied by videos or the opportunity to run artificial-life-based experiments.

The Evolution of Life (Mac or PC): This British CD-ROM will be available in the United States within the next few months. For now you can order it from Notting Hill for £29.95 by calling 44-01634 297123 or sending e-mail to 100444.232@compuserve.com.

How animals move demonstrates just how much an improvement a CD- ROM can be on a book about nature. Over the years University of Leeds zoologist R. McNeill Alexander, an expert on biomechanics, has written several lucid accounts of animal locomotion--how dolphins swim, birds fly, and worms crawl. The only drawback has been the illustrations, which can never really communicate the beauty of his subject. Alexander recently put together this CD-ROM about animal locomotion with hundreds of movies to illustrate his points, and it’s a joy. It’s at its most impressive when two movies--say, one of a giant water beetle kicking its way through its liquid environment, and one of a sea turtle flapping its tremendous flippers--are playing side by side, letting you compare similar kinds of movement performed by very different kinds of beasts.

DK Publishing, which puts out The Eyewitness Encyclopedia of Space and the Universe, also puts out The Eyewitness Encyclopedia of Nature 2.0, which is just as well organized and interesting for kids. Closer looks at certain groups of animals can be found in Insects: Little Creatures in a Big World, In the Company of Whales, and North American Birds by Sight and Sound, a tutorial for recognizing birds.

How Animals Move (Mac or PC, $39.95): Discovery Channel, 800-889- 9950. Eyewitness Encyclopedia of Nature 2.0 (Mac or pc, $39.95): dk Publishing, 888-342-5357. Insects: Little Creatures in a Big World (Mac or pc, $59.95): The Learning Team, 800-793-8326, e-mail, sales@learningteam.org. In the Company of Whales (Mac or pc, $34.95): Discovery Channel, 800-889-9950. North American Birds by Sight and Sound (Mac and pc, $29.95): Natureware, 402-467-4484, e-mail, clemen@natureware.com.

A relatively new software feature called Quicktime vr makes it possible to create a small-scale version of virtual reality on personal computers. By moving a mouse around the screen, you can move smoothly through high-resolution spaces, with the objects around you changing their perspectives as you go. Appropriately, an impressive use of this technological breakthrough can be found on a CD-ROM about technology called Inventor Labs. You wander through the workshops of inventors such as the Wright brothers and learn how their machines were invented and how they worked.

Other interesting technology titles include The Way Things Work 2.0, based on the classic book by David Macaulay. Those who want to learn about the prophet of modern technology can take a look at Leonardo Da Vinci, rich with Da Vinci’s writings and drawings, as well as historical commentaries. And for the grim downside of technological progress, consider The Day After Trinity, an expanded version of the critically acclaimed movie about J. Robert Oppenheimer’s involvement in the creation of America’s nuclear arsenal. It includes annotations and materials such as declassified Manhattan Project files, photo galleries, and biographies.

Inventor Labs (Mac and PC, $29.95): Houghton Mifflin Interactive, 617-503-4800. The Way Things Work 2.0 (Mac or pc, $39.95): dk Publishing, 888-342-5357. Leonardo Da Vinci (Mac and pc, $49.95): Corbis Web site, www.corbis.com. The Day After Trinity (Mac or pc, $29.95): Voyager Publishing, 800-446-2001.

Quicktime vr also enhances a CD-ROM about archeology called Exploring the Lost Maya. Click on one of the many sites described on this disk and you can take a 360-degree ground-level view of these ruined temples. One particularly nice touch to this encyclopedic disk is its treatment of Mayan time. The Maya used two calendars simultaneously, one 365 days long and the other 260 days, each with its own system of months and days. It’s a painfully hard system to comprehend in a book, but Exploring the Lost Maya cleverly represents the calendars as a set of interlocking, rotating gears. A few moments of watching them spin and all becomes clear.

Exploring the Lost Maya (Mac or PC, $49.95): Sumeria, 415-904- 0800.

Finally, there once was a time when a child who was curious about the insides of the human body would have to peel back sticky transparent pages in an encyclopedia or click together the plastic organs of a Visible Man toy. Now there are a number of CD-ROMs on anatomy that make it far easier to explore our innards. One of the most satisfying is The Dynamic Human, which lets you twirl skulls, kidneys, lungs, and other body parts around for a better view; it also offers a battery of instructive movies of contracting muscles, quivering eardrums, and other puzzles of the flesh.

The Dynamic Human (Mac or PC, $49.95): Engineering Animation Incorporated, 800-324-6777.
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