The universe at your fingertips

Meet Einstein or play pinball with Edison. Janet Swift rediscovers science on her PC
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Indy Lifestyle Online
T he computer has had the effect of shrinking our universe - it enables us to explore our environment without leaving home, without requiring special equipment and without risk of injury. If you want to increase your understanding of science then any of the following CD-Roms will provide a rewarding starting point. Inevitably, most of the accents you will hear are American, but the content is universal.

If I had to choose one science CD-Rom it would be Knowledge Adventure's Science Adventure II. This is intended for ages eight to adult and it does appeal to the entire age range. Using Science Adventure 2 is rather like visiting a modern museum: you choose where to start and wander as the fancy takes. There are games, diversions and plenty of sound, factual information. You can peer through a microscope, test the gravity on Jupiter, hear about mathematical concepts or meet Marie Curie. Entries in its reference section, of which there are more than 1,000, were written by Isaac Asimov in a clear, informative style. A simplified version of these texts are narrated for children.

Dorling Kindersley's Eyewitness Encyclopaedia of Science has a more straightforward approach, and the experience is closer to that of using a book. But it is easy to delve deeper or to broaden your perspective by cross-references by the use of hypertext (clickable) links. The main subject areas are maths, physics, chemistry and life sciences. The CD includes a Who's Who? section on great scientists and a quiz. Animations and video sequences are included, but once you get away from the introductory levels, where you can hear the text, you have to read most of the contents for yourself and the graphics become static.

For those with an interest in environmental sciences, Biosphere is a multimedia encyclopaedia presented by the British TV personality Judith Haan. Its major sections are human factors, ecosystems, food and energy and Planet Earth; there is a narrated tours to each. Many of the glossary entries have a speech option - an advantage as many of the words and phrases are ones that users might not be sure how to pronounce. This CD has lots of text plus graphs, photographs, video clips and sound effects presented in a rather serious and academic vein. Although intended for Key Stage 2 to A Level (from seven years old) a lower limit of 11 might be more appropriate.

My next choice, New Media's Chemistry Set, is included for its ability to bring the periodic table to life. Click on an element and a window pops up with a comprehensive range of information. This is not confined to text. Experiments that would be performed in the lab are included as video clips, there are models of molecules that you can view from every angle, many photographs and a graph tool to convert data into charts. As well as descriptive, historical and biographical data there are quotations from Primo Levi's novel, The Periodic Table. This is intended as an educational resource for sixth-form students, hence its high price, but deserves to appeal to a wider audience.

Finally, a CD-Rom that's meant to be fun for kids of all ages but will extend your understanding of basic physics. Adventures with Edison includes sections on music and the arts but its Wild Science Arcade presents a practical challenge to young scientists. The activity involves a pinball machine with very special properties. You play with a ball that can be of ice, glass, stone, iron and rubber and can control the forces that determine how objects move. In the initial stages the user can vary gravity, friction and power. At the second level magnets are added and later electricity enters the equation. All the time users are absorbing more and more information about how these forces interact.

All prices include VAT. All for PCs. Space Adventure II, pounds 29.99, Random House New Media, 01621 816900. Eyewitness Encyclopaedia of Science, pounds 59, Dorling Kindersley, 0171 836 5411. Biosphere, pounds 72.50, Education Interactive, 01425 272235. Chemistry Set, pounds 179, Education Interactive, 01425 272235. Adventures with Edison, pounds 34, Corel Corporation, 01703 814142.