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February 13, 1996

PERIPHERALS / By STEPHEN MANES

Atomic Bomb History on CD-ROM: Color but No Context

CD-ROM multimedia, that ultimate hybrid, keeps borrowing old forms as it tries to become something more than an interesting concept with great potential.

"Critical Mass: America's Race to Build the Atomic Bomb" (Corbis Corp., about $50) is multimedia as coffee-table book. The design is attractive. The visual (and in this case, audible) contents are striking. But initial admiration eventually gives way to a nagging sense that one is getting a gloss on the story rather than the story itself.

The CD-ROM introduces the historical setting with a documentary prelude as breathlessly overwrought as any 1940's newsreel. The program then sets you free to roam at random. One possible destination is a less frantic documentary, The Los Alamos Story, which recounts a rather sketchy chronology of the events leading up to the first nuclear blast.

The focus on Los Alamos continues with a self-guided tour of the original atomic development site. Panoramic artist's renderings (described as 3-D, which they are not) let you swivel your virtual gaze 360 degrees from various vantage points, a cute but ultimately uninformative touch, particularly when period photos "put you there" more effectively. Clicking on certain buildings launches short documentaries about their functions; unfortunately, the theater and commissary are described much more convincingly than the technical facilities.

Biographies of 13 crucial figures of atomic history are offered in screens of illustrated text. Among those figures, Niels Bohr, Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman and Enrico Fermi are also given narrated biographies.

This material is among the most successful sections of the disk, but in part because its creators can have no idea about the order in which you will read it, it gives you only the dimmest sense of chronology or of how the nuclear discoveries of the early 20th century built upon one another. Because tricky scientific concepts generally receive mentions instead of explanations, you get a better view of the scientists as people than as scientists.

Timelines offer extra information in five categories: atomic events, scientists, popular culture, political history and military technology. The images and sounds are often revealing, including a 1915 "Treat 'em Rough" recruitment poster for the Tank Corps, a postwar Kix Atomic Bomb Ring, the Buchanan Brothers' country gospel song "Atomic Power" and newsreel footage of the convicted atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. While the explanatory text is pithy and well-written, it rarely amounts to more than a paragraph or two per image.

A clever "atomic atlas" of the world lets you see when countries acquired nuclear weapons and track sites of nuclear detonations, accidents, reactors and uranium mining over time. The accident list is particularly interesting, but cries out for more explanation. A particularly ghastly accident, for example, is described in just three terse words: "Chernobyl reactor explodes." The consequences, left unexplained, might seem less important than many more trivial occurrences.

A section of the program called "Beyond Trinity" displays postwar images, but its lack of context makes it little more than a slide show of mysterious images. "A patient with a cancer of the chest wall is about to receive an injection of radioactive gallium 72 for therapeutic purposes," reads the caption of a photograph from 1951. Was this technique in any way as successful as the equally unexplained "gamma knife surgery" depicted in a 1989 photo? The producers give us not a hint.

This willful failure to engage with the material is particularly galling in the "archives" section, whose original documents have been beautifully digitized right down to multiple classification and declassification stamps in various shades of red. Only terse captions give us any clue to the significance of this tantalizing material. Who are the experimenters and who are the subjects in the 1944 letter captioned "Plutonium Tests on Humans?" Is the blandly labeled 1943 "Letter from Oppenheimer" to Fermi really discussing the concept of "radioactively poisoned foods" as a possible weapon? Are we meant to admire Feynman's assertiveness in a 1951 letter to Fermi from Rio de Janeiro challenging "Yukawa's meson theory with pseudoscalar mesons gradient coupling" or merely chuckle at his remarks, nine pages of dense mathematical rumination later, about going to Copacabana beach to get ideas? The editors remain silent.

The "science basics" section, an illustrated glossary, is prettily designed but woefully oversimplified and incomplete, lacking many terms used elsewhere on the disk. Even the occasional animations add little, squandering yet another opportunity to demonstrate the oft-touted but rarely demonstrated power of computers to communicate complex topics.

In an age when millions of people are learning how to use search engines to find information on the World Wide Web, this CD-ROM title, like so many others, lacks any search engine of its own, and elements of is user interface can be awkward. Given a subject about which there are plenty of good books and even films, "Critical Mass" is particularly disappointing. Its attractiveness will encourage browsing, but its almost perverse avoidance of detail and analysis makes it seem as wide as a coffee table and a millimeter deep.


PERIPHERALS is published weekly, on Tuesdays. Click here for a list of links to other columns in the series.

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