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Biological Chemistry

Second Life Science

Take a scientific Field Trip to a digital world

by Sarah Everts
June 25, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 26

Max Chatnoir talks about the music of proteins on Genome Island.
Credit: © 2007 Linden Research

I SWEAR this is not science fiction: Just after lunch on June 12, 2007, I teleported to a place called Genome Island to listen to a seaside talk about making music from a protein's amino acid sequence. I sat at the back of the audience, but my view was unobstructed because my seat cushion conveniently hovered midair. A few rows in front of me, a furry beastette with a long tail used the floating seats to keep her appendage from dragging on the ground.

This was my first seminar in Second Life, the online world that functions like an Internet chat room placed in a 3-D video game.

The seminar speaker was Max Chatnoir, the digital persona that Mary Anne Clark, a real-life biology professor at Texas Wesleyan University, chose as her Second Life representative, or avatar.

Clark makes digital music by correlating amino acids in a protein to musical notes. Her talk was delivered to a 25-person audience chat-room style. The text was supplemented by musical examples, such as a tune created from a spider silk protein's sequence. Audience members interacted with Clark's alter ego, Max, by typing questions throughout the seminar or by making their avatars clap, tap their feet to the music, or in my case, drink a cup of coffee.

Max gave the seminar on her recently minted Genome Island, which she created as a snazzy way to teach undergraduate genetics. I became particularly fond of exploring Genome Island's oversized biological cell.

My reason for entering this digital world was straightforward: I had heard about its official Swedish Embassy, its millions of members, clothing stores, religious congregations, casinos, and triple-X-rated activities, but I wanted to seek out the science.

Second Life is free to visit. The parent company, San Francisco's Linden Lab, makes its money by selling land???so-called islands???to those who wish to develop it. The National Aeronautics & Space Administration, the Nature Publishing Group (NPG), and more than 15 universities already operate in Second Life. Many of the science-focused islands are clustered together in an archipelago called Sci-Lands.

To check out these digital landmarks, I downloaded free software and tried to choose a basic avatar that might be considered modest. Enticed by her crazy hairstyle and height, I settled on Cyber Goth, vowing to trade in the black for something more colorful. (Hard-core Second Lifers personalize their digital alter egos by buying, literally, everything from accessories to plastic surgery.)

My avatar was then deposited at a place in Second Life called Orientation Island. As I walked my avatar into a geodesic information dome, I happened to notice the "Fly" button. Intrigued, I wasted no time pressing it—and I shot up into the air, hitting the ceiling of the information dome like a clumsy goth-bird.

It was around this time that Horace Moody, the avatar of a real-life chemist at Drexel University named Jean-Claude Bradley, came to the rescue and offered to teleport me to Drexel Island.

Horace has been experimenting with Second Life as a way to teach undergraduate organic chemistry, a topic he says can definitely benefit from 3-D visualization. Several of his students have met on Drexel Island to challenge each other's organic know-how by touching an obelisk, which then flashes a sequence of quiz questions on Newman projections and Lewis dot structures.

Soon thereafter, I met Max Chatnoir when she wandered over to Drexel Island. We teleported to Genome Island for a tour and ran into Hiro Sheridan, who has designed a computer program that creates, "in less than 30 seconds," made-to-order molecules for viewing in Second Life. In real life, Hiro is Andrew S. Lang, a mathematics professor at Oral Roberts University, in Tulsa.

Hiro shares his chemical-making engine with Second Lifers at a booth that advertises "Free Molecules" on Second Nature Island, which is owned by NPG. "When we bought the island, we thought a lot about what we could do with it," says Joanna Scott, who manages the island for NPG, using her avatar Joanna Wombat. "Eventually, we decided we'd see what was actually useful to real scientists by letting them set up their own displays."

So far, more than 15 scientists have created content on Second Nature Island. Both Max and Horace started off on Second Nature before buying land and moving their content to Genome Island and Drexel Island, respectively. I got a sneak peek of a new NPG island being developed as an interactive display about the science of water-from glaciers to hot springs. There are also plans for a third island that will expand upon one of the first scientific experiments in Second Life: Terminus Island's evolving ecosystem of digital creatures.

I'm no technophobe, but I have to admit that in Second Life, I feel entirely inept. Navigating around with a modicum of grace seems to require the coordination of a video game guru, an avocation I stopped pursuing in the late 1980s. My difficulties are partly due to my rookie status, but there are also digital glitches that occur because Second Life is still a work in progress.

Despite feeling like a klutz, I am a definite Second Life convert. The draw is not simply its educational potential for visualizing complex concepts or for allowing geographically distant students to form a classroom community. And it's not just that the site allows researchers to network at a poster session without the time and financial cost of attending a real-world conference.

I like Second Life because it reminds me of the awkward early days of the Internet. Like knowing a gawky, smart teenager, I'm curious to see how Second Life turns out when it grows up.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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