If Volcanoes’s scope is panoramic, Critical Mass is deliberately claustrophobic. The disc’s opening sequence sets the tone by recreating the dark, drizzly conditions near Alamogordo, New Mexico, in the wee hours of July 16, 1945-a gloom that soon gave way to nuclear morning. After viewing a newsreel-style overview of the political crisis that drove the nation’s top physicists to unleash the horrific power of the bomb, the user is deposited in a small office, cluttered with papers, folders, and filing cabinets, that serves as the graphical gateway to the other parts of the program. Though a bit hokey-probably consciously so-the office lends a tangible sense of depth to the program, as if one were actually stepping into the past.
Behind a desk in the office, in fact, are cutouts of a grandfatherly Niels Bohr, the perpetually abstracted Robert Oppenheimer, a congenial Enrico Fermi, and a brash young Richard Feynman. Clicking on any of these great physicists or others represented in portraits and newspaper clippings launches biographical slide shows full of personal detail. Beyond a window in the office a slice of Los Alamos is visible, leading to the program’s most remarkable feature: a digital rendering of the top-secret installation as it appeared on a sunny day in 1945. From seven standpoints along the dusty roads lacing through the facility-known to the outside world only as P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico-the visitor can pan 360 degrees to view the fenced-in town’s labs, machine shops, hut-like residences, dining and lecture halls, and other hastily erected structures. Clicking on highlighted buildings calls up interior shots and commentary from Roger Mead, archivist of the current-day Los Alamos National Laboratory. Sound effects, from clanky cafeteria hubbub to click-clacking adding machines and tremulous big band saxophones, serve as reminders that this was a bustling place where, at the height of the bomb-building effort, some 6,000 people lived and worked.
Rounding out the program are a detailed timeline, an illustrated scientific glossary, an archive of declassified Manhattan Project documents, a collection of nuclear-age images and animation (including the classic civil defense cartoon “Duck and Cover”), and an “atomic atlas” mapping the nuclear detonations, atomic power plants, uranium deposits, and reactor accidents of the 20th century. Much of this material is available elsewhere, and no one who has read histories such as Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb will find much that’s original, surprising, or even critical in Critical Mass. What will delight atomic aficionados, historians of science, and the uninitiated lay user alike, however, is the way the program turns 1940s Los Alamos, the almost mythical crucible of our Cold-War obsessions, back into a tangible, gritty, even familiar-looking place.
Unlike Critical Mass, Leonardo da Vinci is built around a historical source hitherto unavailable, at least to everyone but Leonardo scholars and billionaires: the Codex Leicester. The Codex, an intricately illustrated notebook created between 1508 and 1513, was Leonardo’s study for an unrealized treatise on the behavior of water. Bill Gates purchased the Codex from Armand Hammer in 1994, and the Corbis CD-ROM reproduces all 72 pages so realistically that it almost feels as if one were handling the original parchment. Corbis’s look at “the original Renaissance man” is both the company’s best CD-ROM to date and the hardest to do justice to in print.
Of course, a Leonardo notebook wouldn’t make much sense to anyone unschooled in reading Leonardo’s peculiar mirror-image 15th-century Italian. A delightful Corbis invention called the Codescope, however, begins to make the penetrating observations of this painter-engineer-inventor accessible. The Codescope is, in effect, a magical magnifying glass that, when placed over Leonardo’s original script, flips it around so that it reads from left to right. It also overlays a transcription of the Italian text in legible Roman characters or converts the Italian transcription into modern-day English. Even with all that help, though, following the arguments in the Codex can be tricky. While Leonardo’s reasoning about the nature of turbulence, the existance of whether there is water on the surface of the moon, or the origins of rivers is impeccably logical, it proceeds from a pre-Newtonian view of nature so distant from our own as to make Leonardo’s conclusions seem, at times, ludicrous. He argues, for example, that the water in a lake or river imposes no weight on the ground beneath, “as shown by the thin grass waving through water at the bottom … which has almost the lightness of water itself; instead, had the water gravity over it, it would be compressed and almost petrified.”
Of course, it’s not what Leonardo concluded but the way he thought about the world that makes him one of modernity’s most important progenitors, and that’s what the Corbis program really brings to life. Interpretive remarks by Leonardo scholars, multimedia “tours” and “exhibits” on the Codex’s main themes (including animated versions of some of Leonardo’s illustrations and experiments), a detailed timeline of the Renaissance, and a virtual art gallery add to the central Codex. They also show how Leonardo repeatedly returned to themes such as flow, whether it be that of a river or a lock of hair. I, for one, had never before noticed the backdrop of tiny lakes, rivers, and bridges behind the Mona Lisa. Content providers as effective as Corbis, it’s clear, need never fear a change of medium.