Instead, he began designing graphics, maps and visual presentations for oil corporations and other high-tech companies around the world. Then, in August 2006, he picked up another magazine that once again changed everything.

It was a copy of Popular Science, and its lead article was all about Second Life.

So, do you want to see the eclipse, Mars or the Big Bang first?"

Eric Hackathorn manages the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's virtual-world program.
Tony Gallagher
Eric Hackathorn manages the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's virtual-world program.

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Patio Plasma's question to me hangs in the digital air for a moment as we stand in the middle of Exploratorium Island, the Second Life wing of the Exploratorium science museum in San Francisco. I'm still coming to grips with the fact that Plasma, the avatar of Paul Doherty, an Exploratorium senior staff scientist, is an attractive woman.

Plasma senses my confusion. "You may notice that Patio is a female avatar," she, er, he says. "I am quite open about having a female avatar. It is, after all, SECOND Life."

The awkwardness somewhat dissipated, I choose Exploratorium's solar eclipse exhibit, just as a group of college students on a virtual school field trip might do. Soon we're riding light balls shooting out of a miniature sun, learning how long these light beams take to reach earth as we zoom across the green terrain. Then we teleport to a red, desolate wasteland — a simulated version of Mars.

"Here comes the meteor," says Plasma — as a gigantic rock throttles out of the sky and slams into the surface just in front of us, spewing fire and debris and leaving a gaping crater we explore at our leisure. Finally, we stop by Plasma's newest exhibit: the Big Bang. We sit on glowing spheres in the middle of an empty room and then, with the announcement, "The Singularity is preparing the creation of the universe," the walls fade away and we're rocketing through space as galaxies form like colorful fireworks in the first moments of time. "Wow," is all I can manage when the Universe tidily resets itself and we're transported back to the exhibit room.

"In Second Life, we can do things too big and too expensive and too dangerous to do in real life," says Plasma. The creation of the entire universe for the Big Bang exhibit, for example, only took Doherty and his museum colleagues three weeks.

Exploratorium Island is one of the most popular places in SciLands, attracting 1,600 to 2,400 unique visitors a month (that's nowhere near the 600,000 visitors the real Exploratorium gets, but Plasma says in-game attendance is constantly growing). It is also, along with the Science School, one of the oldest islands in the archipelago.

Doherty's work at the Exploratorium focuses on helping high-school physics teachers make classes more interesting. He was first introduced to Second Life in January 2006, when the Exploratorium built a Second Life amphitheater where people could get together to concurrently watch a live solar eclipse from the real world projected onto a virtual movie screen in the amphitheater.

"Here is what we discovered," he says. "On the Web, people would watch the eclipse for fifteen minutes, ten minutes, mostly at home, with few family members. It was a personal experience. In Second Life, people would come into the amphitheater, watch the eclipse and stay for an hour, watching the entire partial eclipse, the whole program. And what was happening was, there would be a fanatic from Finland having their avatar sit with a fanatic from Japan and having a conversation about what they were seeing. It took this personal experience of watching it by yourself and made it a social experience. I was blown away by that."

It was easy for Doherty to see the game's educational potential. Here, people from all over the world could come together to learn about, experiment with and talk about science exhibits and telecasts of real-world events whose creation and coordination cost a tiny fraction of what they would in real life — and whose staying power seemed to be much longer than an average class lecture or informational website. So he bought some virtual land — each 65,536 virtual square-meter island costs educational institutions and nonprofits $950, plus a $150-a-month maintenance fee, less than it would for private entities — and started re-creating museum exhibits. Soon he met like-minded avatars, including a shaggy-haired fellow named zazen Manbi who was building a place called the Science School, and they decided to join forces, creating a sub-continent in Second Life devoted to science and technology.

Now SciLands features contributions from roughly two dozen government agencies, universities and museums, many of which are recipients of some of the $6.5 million the National Science Foundation has provided for educational opportunities in Second Life and other virtual worlds. (Second Life is far from the only computer-based simulated environment; the recently released second edition of Blue Book: A Consumer Guide to Virtual Worlds lists more than 250 entries, from massively multi-player online role-playing games to social networks.) SciLands reps hold regular meetings where they plan future projects, decide whether to allow in new island applicants and even fend off takeovers. (The not for-profit New Media Consortium considered buying SciLands, but, Corbin says, "We figured we could hold our own.")

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