By Ben Stein

A Brief History of Time: An Interactive Adventure and The Cartoon Guide to Physics (CD-ROM)

Dealing as it does with the dynamic flow of matter and energy in our universe, physics is a natural candidate for multimedia, electronic presentations combining text, graphics, animation, sound, and music. At its best, multimedia can convey ideas with a vividness practically unrealizable on paper or blackboard. As CD-ROM-equipped home computers become increasingly widespread in the U.S., software companies are starting to ship multimedia versions of bestselling books. Popular books on physics are now receiving the multimedia treatment, and both titles tested for this month's column are very good.

A Brief History of Time: An Interactive Adventure (Scientific American/W.H. Freeman, $49.95) is the CD-ROM version of Stephen Hawking's 1988 best-seller that traces humankind's discoveries on the nature of space-time. Largely modelled after the 11-chapter book, and utilizing video and sound from the stylish Errol Morris movie adaptation, the CD-ROM employs ample narration by the author, beautiful graphics and animated thought experiments to flesh out the often-difficult concepts in Hawking's popular work. Chapter One, entitled "Our Picture of the Universe," contains a gallery of famous philosophers and physicists in history. Clicking on Aristotle begins a slide presentation, narrated by the speech-synthesizer-aided Stephen Hawking, describing how the Greek philosopher convincingly argued that the Earth is round by appealing to the round shadows the Earth makes when it eclipses the moon.

In "Relativity Street," an animated version of Albert Einstein recalls how he was inspired with the idea of relativity after talking to a painter who had fallen off a roof. A subsequent thought experiment on relativity shows Einstein playing a game of ping-pong inside a trolley heading towards the edge of a cliff. From Einstein's point of view, the path of the airborne ping-pong ball seems to change as the trolley goes into free fall, but from the outside we can see that the ball would follow the same trajectory if the trolley had continued to travel on the rails. In a humorous live-action skit elsewhere in the chapter, Marilyn Monroe seductively describes a thought experiment on special relativity to a receptive Einstein.

Another section of the program allows one to take a trip aboard a spaceship to the suspected black hole Cygnus X-1. On the way to a beautiful rendition of the swirling galaxy surrounding Cygnus X-1, video clips play as physicist John Wheeler and others describe the properties of black holes and what it would be like for an astronaut to fall inside one. There also is a well-done biography section of Hawking discussing his affliction with Lou Gehrig's disease and his decision to live life to the fullest and become a serious scientist. The complete text of the book can be found on the disc, with links to the appropriate graphics and animations.

Much lighter is the CD-ROM version of The Cartoon Guide to Physics (HarperCollins Interactive, $39.95), based on the popular book by Larry Gonick and Art Huffman. Suitable for anyone who is receiving his or her first introduction to physics, the Cartoon Guide offers clear and correct lessons in basic mechanics, covering such topics as Newton's Laws, energy and momentum. To its credit, the program doesn't shy away from displaying basic equations and even performing simple mathematical derivations.

Each physics lesson consists of animated black and white vignettes narrated by a live-action character named Lucy and demonstrated by an accident-prone cartoon figure named Ringo. These are very much like animated versions of Gonick's popular cartoon books and bimonthly columns in Discover. The lesson on Newton's Third Law begins as Isaac Newton chisels the formal versions of his three laws on a stone tablet. Then, in Monty Pythonesque fashion, a block of letters falls from on high reading, "Action equals reaction." The lesson shows how a horse manages to pull a cart even though, at first sight, the two seem to exert forces that cancel out each other. Other examples show the forces involved when a book is held up on a table, and the way in which a space shuttle is pushed up by exhaust gases.

A section of the program entitled "The Workshop" consists of five games intended to give the user a feel for such properties as inertia, projectile motion, and potential and kinetic energy. I found this to be the weakest part of the program, as the games are kind of basic and not very fun. In the Hall of Fame section, Lucy and Ringo stand next to busts of ancient, classical, and modern scientists and converse on the achievements and importance of each. Finally, a glossary contains good working definitions of the terms encountered on the disc. The animation on this disc is smooth and seamless.

System requirements:
A Brief History of Time: An Interactive Adventure, Scientific American/W.H. Freeman (1-800-777-0444). Windows version requires a 386 SX or faster, VGA color monitor and graphics card running at 256 colors, 8 MB RAM, Windows 3.1, SoundBlaster or a compatible sound card, mouse, double-speed CD-ROM drive. Macintosh version requires an LCII or faster, including Performa, Quadra, and PowerMac series, 256 color monitor at least 13", system 7.0 or later, double speed CD-ROM drive.

The Cartoon Guide to Physics, HarperCollins Interactive (800-424-6234). Windows users require a 486/33 or compatible with hard disk drive, Microsoft Windows 3.1, 8 MB RAM, 5 MB free hard disk space, 256-color or higher graphics card, 14" SVGA monitor, double speed CD ROM drive, MPC compatible sound card and speakers. Macintosh version requires 25 MHz 68030 or better, 8 MB RAM, 13" 256-color monitor, double speed CD-ROM.

Ben Stein is a science writer in AIP's Public Information Division.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Barrett H. Ripin

July 1996 (Volume 5, Number 7)

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Multimedia Review
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Historical Factoid