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It makes sense that this DU landmark stands near the center of SciLands. Corbin and DU physics professor Robert Amme have used their development of the Science School to establish DU as a key player in this online science consortium, and the university now enjoys a hefty reputation in online science and technology circles.

If only they could get the real school to care.

So far, DU administrators haven't gotten on board with Second Life, but they may have to soon as a result of Corbin and Amme's latest and most ambitious endeavor.

DU physics professor Robert Amme with a scale model of a nuclear reactor.
Tony Gallagher
DU physics professor Robert Amme with a scale model of a nuclear reactor.
The reactor in Second Life
The reactor in Second Life

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For a short history of nuclear power in Colorado, read the Latest Word blog at westword.com/news.

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"Have I shown you the core?" asks Manbi, referring to the nuclear reactor being built under his direction with help from a Nuclear Regulatory Commission grant. With a whoosh of blackness, we teleport away to the reactor's construction site, with Manbi, at the last moment, noting ominously, "It's still unfinished."

Can virtual people be harmed by virtual fallout?

Back in the real world, hidden away in DU's physics building, is a small, cluttered room behind a door marked "Defect Products," where Corbin oversees the Science School. Two computer screens, one showing Second Life, sit perched amid Doritos bags and soup cans, piles of paper and tangles of electrical cords.

Corbin himself sort of resembles his eyeglass-wearing avatar, though Manbi has a lot less grey hair, prefers neat button-downs to Corbin's rumpled Hawaiian shirts, and exudes calm confidence where Corbin displays hints of nervous awkwardness. Manbi can also fly, which he's doing right now, soaring over the Science School.

The land below — including a detailed version of the Rose Center for Earth and Science in New York City, complete with working exhibits — is largely vacant.

While the Science School features enough interesting exhibits and buildings to attract a small but steady stream of visitors — science geeks, professors, college students, random avatars out for a stroll — its big draw is the open-air auditorium, which hosts the weekly in-game version of the hit NPR show Science Friday.

During a recent show, a small crowd sat in the venue, chatting via text windows about the day's topic and asking questions to "Ira Flately," the virtual radio-show host. It's sort of like being at a real-world taping of the show, the difference being that attendees are pirates and aliens and a Barack Obama look-alike with angel wings. On this occasion, turnout was just a few dozen, though Corbin notes that the event has drawn hundreds. "I've met so many people," he says. "What cracks me up is I became famous through my avatar."

Corbin is the perfect fit for his virtual museum curatorial duties. He's always been an idiosyncratic tinkerer, obsessed with capturing the intricacies of science. Growing up the son of an oil worker whose job took the family from Aspen to Libya to Casper, Wyoming, Corbin preferred losing himself in his chemistry set to excelling at schoolwork. "I wanted to make a bomb," he explains. "As kids like to do."

He didn't go to college, at least not in the traditional sense. While living in Denver in 1984, he spotted a National Geographic with a first-of-its-kind holographic cover, and its murky three-dimensional eagle blew his mind. "I have to do this," he said, so he enrolled in the San Francisco School of Holography, one of a number of such schools that opened in the 1970s, where he learned to make the images with lasers, lenses and beam splitters.

When he got back to Denver, he became volunteer assistant director at the one place around that might possibly use his training: the Colorado Science Center, a hands-on science museum then based in City Park Pavilion. He loved every part of the Science Center: its two-way mirrors, its sparking electrodes, its Mars Viking Lander model. "It really turned me on to the hands-on aspect of science," he says. "Kids wouldn't be so turned off by science if they could play with it."

Corbin wasn't the only one interested in turning kids back on to science. The Second International Science Study, conducted between 1982 and 1986, found that U.S. high school students were trailing many European and Asian countries in science achievement, and were even doing worse than their American counterparts from the 1970s.

Corbin befriended another Science Center volunteer who was equally passionate about figuring out what had gone wrong in science classrooms: Robert Amme, a DU physics professor with a fashion sense as colorful as his academic interests. Over the years, Amme has spearheaded projects to transform coal plant waste into usable concrete, to reuse tires as paving for recreation trails, and, possibly hardest of all, to inject enthusiasm back into math and science curricula.

"He's brilliant. He's excited. He has the enthusiasm and curiosity of a kid," says Corbin of his colleague. "Most people link that sense of wonder to neuroses."

"Jeff and I complement each other," adds Amme. "I have the formal training and many, many years of teaching to secondary-school teachers. And Jeff has all the technology know-how. We were a natural pair."

Even this dynamic duo couldn't save the Colorado Science Center, however, which closed in the late 1980s due to dwindling attendance and funds. "That was kind of a drag," says Corbin, who tried unsuccessfully to find a new location.

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