Life in the Universe with Stephen Hawking

Life in the Universe with Stephen Hawking
MetaTools Software

HERE'S A DISK everyone should try, if only to see just how far from clarity and usefulness a new medium can get when it wants to be sexy and marketable. Essentially a science reference program, LITU throws in a bunch of multimedia nonsense that abuses the concepts of "user friendly" and "intuitive access." Its sins are these:

1. It relies on a celebrity host, Hawking, who narrates through a provocative 61-screen essay about what constitutes life (he wants to include computer viruses) and how it could evolve; but, as the honored scientist is otherwise absent on the disk, this is no counterpart to Errol Morris's Hawking doc (A Brief History of Time).

2. It presumes that a sleek, techy interface is a draw in itself, using shiny surfaces, a generally dark atmosphere, and teeny little buttons that lead to text essays (some of them 25 screens or more), like a visit to an overcrowded science-museum kiosk.

3. It suffers from Photoshop-itis, offering information (everything from cell mitosis and the history of intelligence to pop-culture musings on aliens) that can be accessed from an array of confusing, semibiological or cosmically gridlike "terrains," for no apparent reason.

4. Its sound effects are disjointed and unsupportive ("squwerk!" when a button is clicked, "emeepemeepemeep" while you wait for a screen to show up, "blubble-ppp" while text is sitting on the screen), all but daring a reader to get through it.

5. Its serious content is undermined by the format itself. The text files are packed with info, replete with bibliographies, and written by highly regarded scholars (biologist Stephen Jay Gould among them)--but are they worthy of respect within such a lame mess? Hawking's own thoughts on the Second Law of Thermodynamics ironically echo the brief history of indulgent multimedia design: "Disorder or entropy... always increases with time."

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