- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 3, 2002

In a world of violent video games, where dexterity of the thumb and index finger is infinitely more important than flexing the cerebrum, there must be a place for children and their parents to interact and actually learn something from that overpriced multimedia computer/gaming system. Take a deep breath and enter the ROMper Room, where learning is a four-letter word cool.

Secrets of the Universe attempts to shine light on present-day physics in terms a 14-year-old can understand, going back through history to when our earliest ancestors first asked, "Where do we come from?"

The program's colorful navigation screen presents seven sections with the intriguing titles "Space-Time Travel," "Destination Black Hole," "The Odd World of Quantum Physics," "Photon's Power," "Mysteries of Matter," "Before the Big Bang" and "The Essence of Reality" which particularly piqued my interest.

In this section, the question "Suppose reality does not exist?" is posed, researched, experimented with and discussed, helping students better understand the "permanence of properties" theory or the concept of reality as it frequently appears throughout modern science.

An animation scene and audio clip accompany an experiment using an infant, screen and ball to help explain a pretty complicated idea. In this experiment, the child begins crawling toward a ball. The child sees the ball, recognizing it as something that exists. The next step is to use a screen or pillow to obscure the infant's view of the ball.

The audio portion explains that the child demonstrates the permanence-of-objects theory by continuing to look for the ball even after the ball has been removed from sight. This demonstrates the hypothesis that if an object has a given characteristic in this case, it is red and round it will retain those properties.

The program shines at introducing highbrow concepts in an easy-to-understand format by bombarding users with subsections that reinforce theory and practical applications that hook the student.

In another fun part of the program, "Before the Big Bang," Russian physicist Andrei Linde helps users explore a widely accepted theory on the creation of the universe. Mr. Linde introduces the subject through a brief video snippet that reveals a flaw in the big-bang theory: It assumes that nothing proceeded the event.

He discusses the concept of the "inflationary universe," which says that at the very beginning, the universe "went through a remarkable period of rapid and exponential expansion known as inflation." Then he strives to answer some of the questions the big-bang theory left unanswered.

He is one of nine notable scientists who contribute to the overall presentations. As users work through the seven sections, they will meet the other eight contributors, including Kip Thorne, an award-winning professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology, who offers his expertise on the cosmological consequence of general relativity.

Other sources of knowledge worth looking at, besides the major sections, include a helpful lab area containing 12 experiments; an always-present lexicon providing definitions of dozens of words; a bibliography of additional reading; and research material for each topic.

Secrets of the Universe, Montparnasse Multimedia, $39.95, cross-compatible with Macintosh and PC systems
Little Critter and the Great Race brings children's book illustrator Mercer Mayer's delightful characters back to the computer for a soapbox derby and interactive journey through Critterville.

The first thing a player must do is choose from three vehicle designs a standard-issue lemon-crate racer, a sleek 1/2 formula racer or the hot-rod dragster.

Action, geared toward the 4-year-old crowd, consists of journeying through the town; stopping at various locales, including Little Critter's home, the market, the garage or the lake; and collecting the items needed to create a dream car.

To acquire the pieces, one can either perform good deeds (ranging from helping Rusty the mechanic clean up the tools on his workbench in exchange for a wrench to recycling trash for a coupon that can be used to buy objects at the hardware store) or play and win minigames, such as defeating the haunted-house ghost in tick-tack-toe.

In all, more than 20 locations can be explored and six minigames and puzzles can be conquered. While roaming through town, children will find many fun hot spots and animations along with familiar Critterville characters to talk to many of whom will offer clues on how to continue the game.

Once Little Critter's car is built, the soapbox derby, a traditional racing game, begins.

Mercer Mayer's Critter and the Great Race, Infogrames, $19.99, cross-compatible with Macintosh and PC systems

ROMper Room is a column devoted to finding the best of multimedia edutainment. Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send e-mail (jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com).

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