- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Eric Chaisson has taken on the daunting task of explaining the origin of life — and not just of humans, but of a universe conceived in a tremendous explosion that expanded matter and time throughout the vastness of space.

The physics professor teaches a cosmic-evolution course at Harvard University. He has combined his passion for the subject with a desire to spread knowledge in the form of a Web site mirroring his lectures and expanding upon the science of the universe.

Cosmic Evolution

Site address: www.tufts.edu/as/wright_center/cosmic_evolution/

Creator: Eric Chaisson, director of the Wright Center for Science Education at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., conceived the site. It is largely underwritten by the Foundation Wright in Geneva, Switzerland.

Creator quotable: “I’m of the opinion that kids live in a visual society, if not a video society. Rather than complain about multimedia technology, we at the Wright Center have adopted it as a vehicle to deliver good, solid, accurate science to students of many levels,” Mr. Chaisson says.

“The Cosmic Evolution Web site is the centerpiece of our efforts to teach science to high schoolers in an integrated manner (thereby synthesizing all the natural sciences in a powerful story), and it’s the central intellectual theme of our public-outreach efforts to share science with the general public.”

Word from the Webwise: Through an opening page featuring a color illustration of the “arrow of time” cutting through space, the site takes visitors on a 12-billion-year scientific ride into the evolution of the cosmos.

A migraine-inducing amount of text mixes with images, pop-up definition boxes and movies in a chapterlike presentation that leaves no fossil or black hole unturned while tracing life from the beginnings of atoms through man’s tapping into the electromagnetic spectrum to communicate with extraterrestrials.

The chapters Particulate, Galactic, Stellar, Planetary, Chemical, Biological and Cultural form the outline for the site, and I randomly began my look into the universe by selecting Galactic.

There I found seven intriguing topics, including Gravitational Instabilities and Primordial Fluctuations to explore, along with an obligatory introduction and summary page. The section also featured a fantastic Educational Activities area for teachers and students and video clips on cosmic clusters and cluster mergers, complete with color animations and narration.

As an example of the wealth of knowledge contained in the pages, I chose the topic Normal Galaxy Evolution and found a 3,500-word gold mine (a fairly typical length for each topic) discussing the likes of galactic cannibalism, collision, star clusters and spiral galaxies, reinforced with eight photographs.

Ease of use: Simple text and small illustrations make the site a perfect teaching tool at almost any Internet connection speed, the exception being some of the very large Quicktime movies that may take an epoch to download on a 28.8 modem. A CD-ROM version of the site can be ordered free by teachers who complete a written request to the Wright Center using their school’s letterhead.

Don’t miss: The 14 video clips, found under the Movies section, really shine and can be viewed in both Quicktime and RealPlayer versions. The stellar visual explainers range from a look at the DNA molecule to the Chandra X-ray Observatory to a 21-megabyte 3-D model on the potential origins of life on Earth.

Elements on the horizon: Mr. Chaisson says there is a huge amount of additional video and animation at the Wright Center pertaining to cosmic evolution. His intent is to add more 3-D visuals, especially broadcast-quality animations, to illustrate all aspects of the science along the “arrow of time.” Of course, the science will be completely updated as new discoveries are made throughout the natural sciences.

Comprehension level: According to Mr. Chaisson, the 3-year-old site is intended for students at the high school level, though some teachers use it to teach integrated science at the middle school level.

Overall grade: A

Remember: The information on the Internet is constantly changing. Please verify the advice on the sites before you act to be sure it’s accurate and updated. Health sites, for example, should be discussed with your own physician.

Have a cool site for the science or technology fan? Write to Joseph Szadkowski at Webwise, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send an e-mail message ([email protected]washingtontimes.com).

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