Only connect and Life becomes complete

July 11, 1997

LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE. Metatools. Distributed in the United Kingdom by Principal +44 181 813 5656. Pounds ????+VAT ISBN ???????????

Macintosh/Windows dual platform CD with Internet access? The title Life in the Universe is undoubtedly one of the most eyecatching for any book, programme or multimedia experience. And the name of Stephen Hawking on the cover is guaranteed to draw attention. The combination promises an exceptional product; and Metatools has produced a jewel of a CD-Rom - but a gem that is somewhat flawed. First, to the brilliant facets. Dazzling graphics are the key, including 200 animations and 50 QuickTime movies. The information on the CD-Rom is dotted about in hot-spots on three different terrains: "mathematical", "cosmological" and a wonderfully gooey "organic" terrain.

Your agent in the search for knowledge is a beautifully rendered bacteriophage - the only virus that has been welcome in our computer! Click on a hot-spot, and the phage swims over and extracts the information on to another screen where you run the movies, complete with commentaries. As you move on, these Infobits are accumulated in your personal History File.

Also in the terrains you can find two games: build a protein from an RNA strand, and search out an intelligent radio signal from space. These we found the least satisfactory part of the CD-Rom: little was explained of what you had to do, or why you were doing it. Neither the help screen nor the manual - which irritatingly has to be printed out from the CD-Rom - is particularly useful. The flaw in the jewel is simply that the content does not live up to the expectation raised by the title. In fact, the CD-Rom would more fairly be called "Life and the Universe". There is a plethora of information on the role of RNA and DNA in terrestrial life, on the one hand, and much detailed astrophysics and cosmology on the other. But there is a distinct black hole when it comes to discussing extraterrestrial life, which is what the average punter will expect to find on spinning this disc.There is nothing, for example, on possible life on Jupiter's moon Europa; nothing on organic molecules in space; and only a fleeting reference in the "Catch the Signal" game to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

To mix the organic metaphors a bit further, this CD-Rom is not a curate's egg - the information is all excellent and accurate. Rather it is a smorgasbord. Hawking's contribution helps to explain why. It is a lecture tracing the history of life as we know it, from the Big Bang to humans today and tomorrow. Discussion of alien life is very limited, and radio searches are dismissed in the curiously ill-informed phrase "There used to be a project called SETI . . . though it was cancelled for lack of funds". NASA's SETI project was indeed cancelled, but three major SETI programmes still continue, along with countless smaller initiatives.

The other backbone of the CD-Rom is a set of five articles from a special Scientific American issue on "Life in the Universe" (October 1994), from the original ten contributions. While presenting us with top intellects, including William Calvin and Jim Peebles, there's always a danger that leading academics are more concerned with peddling their own wares than providing a broad overview.

For example, Leslie Orgel's "The Origin of Life on the Earth" is a lengthy dissertation on the RNA-world, the idea that RNA rather than DNA was the first self-replicating molecule. There is only a perfunctory overview of how the original primitive molecules formed into more complex organics, and whether these were formed on Earth or were delivered by comets. And Stephen J. Gould's article on evolution is, not surprisingly, an unashamed diatribe against "conventional evolutionary theory".

But the greatest sin here is one of omission. Why, oh why, does the CD-Rom not include Carl Sagan's article entitled "The Search for Extraterrestrial Life" - surely the one article from the Scientific American special issue that most purchasers of the CD-Rom would want to read?

From an educational point of view, the content of the CD-Rom itself is best viewed as a resource. The novice will require guidance through the disparate areas and sometimes contentious views. If your multimedia hardware ends with a CD-Rom drive, you will however miss out on a whole dimension of this product. Incorporated in the CD-Rom is an Internet link to a Life in the Universe website. From the terrain screens, you can access this by directing your phage to the mine-like "Web-Teleporter" (or, more boringly, through a standard browser screen). The website has a page for each topic covered. Most have a selection of excellent links out to other websites.

This is where you can plug the holes in the CD-Rom's coverage. To flesh out the Infobit on planets of other stars, which is disappointing and outdated, you can access the website and find nine links to sites that provide in-depth coverage to all the latest results.

With the Internet access, "Life in the Universe" does at last live up to the sparkling promise of its title.

Nigel Henbest and Heather Couper run Pioneer Productions, a television company specialising in factual programming. Pioneer's latest documentary, Black Holes, will be screened on Channel 4 on Sunday 7 September at 7pm.

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