Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 147 / DECEMBER 1992 / PAGE 98

Isaac Asimov's Science Adventure. (data base) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Keith Ferrell

Let your curiosity be your guide as you investigate the history of science in his superb exploration software.

Isaac Asimov was, to use Carl Sagan's phrase, "the great explainer" of our age. In close to 500 books of nonfiction and fiction, he undertook a survey of virtually all of the world's knowledge, particularly the history of science and technology, and the impact of those pursuits upon our planet and our species. There has never been a writing career remotely like his in terms of breadth, quality, and influence. He was one of the great writers of the twentieth century.

Also the great anticipator, Asimov used science fiction and, frequently, nonfiction to explore the ramifications of scientific and technological advances. He laid the groundwork for much modern thinking about robotics, among other topics. Naturally, as a science-fiction writer and an educator, he speculated about the role of computers in education.

Much to our loss, Asimov died this past April. Fortunately, though, one of his final projects married his talents for explanation with those of an equally talented group of software designers, artists, and programmers. The result, Isaac Asimov's Science Adventure, is a delight.

It's an odd delight in some ways: Asimov wasn't the most visual of writers, and his books tend to consist of page after page of lively text with minimal illustration. Illustration in Science Adventure, though, carries a great deal of weight. Indeed, illustrative material occupies the majority of the default screen, with Asimov's text boxed beside it.

Such placement does not diminish the role of Asimov's text: This is one program designed for reading as well as viewing. The program's interface is thoughtful and efficient; even young users should be able to find their way around the program quickly. A result of careful design, the documentation is kept to a pleasing minimum, much of it consisting of reminders that there's no "right" or "wrong" way to use the program.

This is an important point. As the designers stress, this is an adventure, almost an educational software toy. While there are some clever games and quizzes included in the program, it otherwise carries no curricular agenda. Rather, Science Adventure serves as a sort of intellectual playground, a place where you can allow your curiosity full rein to explore the history of science, darting here and there at will.

The program offers several ways to dart. It proclaims itself "multimedia without CD-ROM," and it comes close to living up to its billing. While there is no animation or video in the program, there is a large database of illustrations, and there are interactive maps and time lines. Click on a country, time, or picture, and the program jumps to the appropriate section of Asimov's text to explain what you're looking at or what was going on in a particular discipline at a particular time. The text sections can be printed.

All of the major scientific disciplines are covered here: physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, space and earth sciences, ecology, and technology. The program's interface allows for the exploration of a single discipline over the course of its development, or you can mingle the disciplines and watch them evolve side by side throughout the world. Thus, we can see the Industrial Revolution getting under way in England, while we're simultaneously examining the development of science and technology in other parts of the world.

The program offers several methods of navigation. In addition to the geographical and time-line approaches, there's a lovely image of an old-fashioned card catalog for those who prefer an alphabetical approach. Click on a letter, and you receive a breakdown of all the categories of information available under that letter.

This is very much a chronological program--and that's very much an Asimovian touch. We arrive at a survey of present knowledge only after thoroughly establishing and examining its background. Thus, an Asimov book ostensibly about quasars might begin thousands of years ago when humans first began looking at the sky.

The dilemma, if you can call it that, of the interactive approach to Asimov's material is that there's no single beginning place. While the material is linked and cross-referenced, those links could be made more overt. I'd like to see another window added to the screen, one that shows clearly the links, into past and future, of each advancement. In his books and essays, Asimov controlled both form and function: You read from beginning to end. Reading from software is more like reading by way of an index, making it easy to miss important points and congruences.

Asimov's text sections are superb. His prose is as clear and straightforward as ever. The miniessays in Science Adventure pack a great deal of information into the fewest possible words, always with an emphasis on clarity and insight. You could take any of the text sections as a model of how science writing should be done.

Technically, Science Adventure is well produced and impressive. It occupies seven or so megabytes of hard disk space, yet it installs on a 386 in under ten minutes. wouldn't want to run Science Adventure on anything less than a fast 386 system with VGA graphics, and even on such systems the program occasionally slows down.

Much of the storage space is used for an enormous and impressive database of illustrations and pictures. These are judiciously chosen, combining historical illustration, technical illustration, and superb scientific photography. Here, VGA pays off handsomely.

Sound support is well managed, accommodating all of the major boards. For the most part, the sounds, music, and spoken words enhance the program, although you have to wonder how Asimov would feel about the opening music. The overture for Science Adventure is, ironically, "Also Sprach Zarathustra," that anthem so closely associated with 2001: A Space Odyssey the masterwork of Asimov's beloved friend and friendly rival, Arthur C. Clarke.

The program can be operated from the keyboard, but I'd say that a mouse is essential. Keyboard control is slow and difficult, but navigating with a mouse is easy.

The program's documentation offers instructions for launching Science Adventure from Windows, but I found that an uneasy fit at best. Science Adventure is best run as a stand-alone program from the DOS prompt.

It's also best run as an adjunct to more traditional methods of learning about science, Asimov once wrote a marvelous little story, called "The Fun They Had," about the future of electronic education and the abandonment of older tools. You might look that story up as you play with Science Adventure.

While no home with a computer should be without Isaac Asimov's Science Adventure, no home should be without Asimov's New Guide to Science, Asimov's Biographical History of Science and Technology The Human Brain, The Human Body, Understanding Physics, and as many more of the master's books as your shelves can support. Use the computer program as a springboard to launch you into the unequaled pleasures of reading Isaac Asimov.

Circle Readers Service Number 301