Montparnasse Multimedia – Secrets of the Universe review

Astrophysics for the rest of us
Photo of Montparnasse Multimedia – Secrets of the Universe

I wonder how many people have Stephen Hawking’s “A brief history of time” on their bookshelves, unopened and gathering dust. It seemed like a good idea at the time; an accessible, easy to read book about the most complicated problems that have dogged physicists over the centuries. Of course, what’s accessible and easy to read for a physicist isn’t necessarily so for joe/jo public, likely to be more concerned about where the next wage slip’s coming from than where the last electron went. Particle-wave duality? Is she or isn’t she? It’s all a bit much.

So full marks to Montparnasse for attempting something similar but in CD form. The medium definitely lends itself to this sort of educational work of reference; this particular CD contains animations, interactive experiments, photos, video, plenty of search functions, a glossary and a bibliography. Even so, it’s a tough proposition; to present, in a readable form, the findings and thoughts of a few geniuses about the way that our universe works and our place in it.

Dividing the content into three sections – the Big Bang, the ‘infinitely’ small and space-time – provides convenient points of entry into the mass of information. But ‘convenient’ in this case does not mean simple. Although the cartoon graphics give the impression that this is a beginner’s guide, the recommended minimum age for using the CD is 14 years.

There are concepts here that, while accepted by the majority of the scientific community, are not at all simple to grasp. Quantum superposition, special and general relativity, black hole physics, Schrödinger’s Cat, the inability of information to exceed the speed of light (ignoring quantum entanglement for a moment) and plenty of other topics are covered.

But if you have the basic knowledge of physics, this really can help to improve your understanding. There’s nothing quite like having pictures, animations, video and a decent commentary to clarify any areas of confusion. The laboratory, where you can tweak experiments and alter variables to change the outcome, is a nice touch, too. Not necessarily as good as seeing the real thing, but in most cases – black holes, the Big Bang, quantum mechanics – you can’t do that anyway.

This CD certainly beats sitting at the back of a lecture theatre while an uninterested bore drones scribbles nonsense on a blackboard and dreams of his lunch break. Or perhaps that was just my experience.

Company: Montparnasse Multimedia

Contact: 00 33 1 40 07 87 40

As an astrophysics graduate (only just, though) this is all fascinating stuff. A real effort has been made to ensure that the content is accessible to those who aren't necessarily physics experts. The multimedia element helps here, although the cartoons give a false impression about the level at which the content is pitched. Make no mistake, you will need to understand the basics of physics - optics, classical mechanics, SI units, etc. - if you're going to get the most out of it.