Scientists Get a 2nd Life

Online world opens up new ways to do and learn about science

To track down neuroscientist Corey Hart, you could stop by his laboratory, located on the second floor of DrexelUniversity’s medical building in Philadelphia. Or, you could visit the lab of Luciftias Neurocam, located in the virtual world of Second Life.

VIRTUAL FROG In the online virtual world known as Second Life, scientists conduct real research projects. Neurobiologist Corey Hart, for example, studies hopping movements in Simfrog, one of a series of “living” creatures that survive, evolve and interact in a virtual ecosystem. C. Hart

SCIENCE TALK Students listen to microbiologist Joan Slonczewski discuss science and science fiction on the American Chemical Society’s island. T. Questi

CYBER-SPACE Article author Terra Questi on the moon in Second Life. T. Questi

PUMPKINS AND POSTERS Horace Moody (real-life chemist Jean-Claude Bradley) pauses in front of exploding pumpkins at a “mixed-world” scientific poster session on the American Chemical Society island. T. Questi

Luciftias is Hart’s digital alter ego, or avatar. Like his real-life counterpart, Luciftias tracks the twitches of frogs’ muscles to find clues to the spinal cord’s ability to control movement.

Robert Amme, a physicist at the University of Denver, has a laboratory in Second Life, too. There his avatar double, Dr. Bob Vandeverre, is building a virtual nuclear reactor to help train the next generation of environmental engineers on how to deal with nuclear waste.

Hart and Amme are pioneers among a growing number of scientists and educators now using the online world of Second Life to pursue real-life science.

Created in 2003 by Linden Lab of San Francisco, Second Life — or SL as it’s known to its members or “residents” — is a 3-D world that allows users to buy “property” (actually time on one of Linden’s powerful computer simulators), create objects and buildings, and interact with other users. Unlike a game, with rules and goals, SL offers an open-ended platform where users can shape their own environments. In this world, avatars do many of the same things real people do: work, shop, go to school, socialize with friends and attend rock concerts.

SL is largely known for its recreational and business activities. But it’s increasingly becoming a world where scientists and educators go to get down to real science. After starting out as a handful of individual efforts, SL’s SciLands has grown into a mini-continent with 45 simulated islands or “sims.” More than 300 universities and museums now maintain a presence in SL, as do an alphabet-soup list of organizations such as NASA, NOAA, ACS and the CDC.

“Early on, when SL really got going, it looked like it was going to be a huge playground,” says Amme. “I thought personally, who needs a second life unless you don’t have a first one?”

Although SL retains a large recreational component, with fantasy, racy nightclubs and sex, the science islands have distinguished themselves as places to connect with the “outside” world. Scientist-avatars guide students through formal university educational programs — such as the University of Denver’s master’s degree in environmental engineering — or create exhibits designed to demonstrate scientific principles. Navigational tools let users zoom in and around objects, making SL a convenient place to investigate phenomena that would otherwise be hard to visualize or understand. Avatars can, for example, initiate chemical reactions with a touch of their hand, watch a tsunami form or stroll through the internal structures of a cell.

But the 3-D visualization is only part of the draw. With 13.4 million registered users from more than 100 countries (Americans make up less than a third of the members), SL provides a rare opportunity for scientists to interact with the public, and vice versa, says Joanna Scott, who oversees the Nature Publishing Group’s three islands: Second Nature, Second Nature 2 and Second Nature 3.

Last fall, Scott initiated a lecture series where real scientists enter SL and talk on a wide range of topics. As the scientist-avatar speaks into a microphone, the sound is streamed through SL’s audio system. Anyone from SL can attend and participate in the discussion following the talk. During one recent lecture, people from all over the world came to hear a scientist from Royal Holloway, University of London, talk about climate change. Scott is now seeking ways to stream images, via webcam, from real-life lectures into SL so that people can communicate across worlds and participate in the same events.

Such “mixed world” events, gatherings that take place simultaneously in SL and real life, remove many of the long-standing barriers in science communication. “Chances are, the scientist would never have traveled all over the world to talk about his work, and nobody from South Carolina would have traveled such a great distance to listen to him,” Scott says.

Although SL is not the first online virtual world, experts say better Internet connections, more realistic graphics and a boom in the video industry are driving forces behind the new interest in using such environments, especially in the classroom.

“Students are no longer prepared to learn using traditional techniques,” says Tracy Kennedy, a University of Toronto lecturer who studies educational uses of online virtual worlds.

Through iPods and mp3 players, Facebook, cell phones and texting, young people become familiar with current technologies and often view them as an extension of themselves, Kennedy says. As a result, they’re drawn to learning techniques that employ novel devices. “Most of this younger generation has grown up entirely with the Internet. How can we not incorporate technology into our curriculum?” she says.

Entering SL is easy: You simply download some free software and choose an avatar and name. Mine is Terra Questi. Recently, after a brief stop at OrientationIsland — where I learned to chat, fly and manipulate virtual objectsI set out on a tour to get a firsthand view of Second Life’s science.

A virtual world evolving
My first stop: Second Nature 3, an island where Drexel neuroscientist Hart has created a virtual ecosystem with plants and animals that can evolve and live out lives of their own. “Cobblefish” and “jellypods” swim in the clear, blue waters surrounding the island. On land, bees whiz by to pollinate plants, which then produce seeds that grow. Hart created everything on the island using building tools called “prims.” He is now putting together a new creature called Simfrog, a virtual clone of his slimy flesh-and-bones lab model.

Back in his bricks-and-mortar lab, Hart uses an electromyograph to track neural pathways involved in frogs’ hopping. Here in his virtual lab, he plans to explore the early development of those patterns and figure out why the frog evolved the neural combination it did. By putting Simfrog under various evolutionary pressures — forcing it to forage for food and dodge predators — Hart wants to see if alternative motor pathways emerge from an incalculable number of possibilities.

“With motor control you have all these different muscles, so the question is, how do you choose the right combination of muscles to execute a movement?” Hart says. “Theoretically, there’s almost an infinite number of ways you could execute any given movement.”

Besides answering his own research questions, Hart sees the ecosystem as a way to illustrate lessons in evolutionary biology for non-scientists. He has done all the programming needed to allow other users to develop and release plants or animals onto the island. So occasionally a new critter or plant will appear.

“Sometimes they get out of hand, and I have to go in and play God and kill something off because it was poorly designed,” he says, recounting the example of a prolific seed-producing plant that created havoc on the island. The plant spewed scads of ill-adapted seeds into the air. Because they were not programmed to take root and sprout, the seeds tumbled when they hit the ground, steamrolling over other plants and creating a pileup in the island ravine. The island’s computer responded by crashing.

Extra-credit chemistry
I teleport to DrexelIsland, where real-life chemist Jean-Claude Bradley sends his avatar, Horace Moody, to meet me. Moody, a spry plum-colored cat, is the first animal avatar, or “furry,” I’ve encountered.

Despite his initial skepticism, last year Bradley helped establish his university’s presence in SL. He now uses the program to augment his introductory course on organic chemistry. By clicking on an obelisk, students can view a series of molecular images and choose an image that corresponds with a question. The students compete in races to work through a series of 20 to 30 questions, with real prizes awarded for the winner.

Students may also use SL to interact with and create representations of chemical reactions. Last fall, one of Bradley’s students created a life-size model of a camphor molecule for extra credit, now on display on one of the Second Nature islands.

Bradley is one of an estimated 5,000 educators worldwide using SL in their curricula. Some use it to bring in guest speakers from across the world or to encourage students to explore topics on their own. Others, like Amme, immerse their students in virtual worlds, with courses and programs held entirely in SL.

Bradley says that although only a fraction of his students — 5 to 10 percent — currently participate in SL, that number is likely to increase as students become more familiar with it.

“There’s a misconception out there that all students are very tech-savvy, and that’s simply not true,” he says. “Second Life provides an additional way for students to explore class material, but it doesn’t appeal to everyone.”

A steep learning curve can also discourage students who are not highly motivated to use SL, he says. Statistics from Linden Lab show that only about one in 10 people who register in SL actually become regular users. I keep this statistic in mind as I jet off to my next destination.

Learning to fly
In many ways, Second Life is just like real life, and things don’t always go smoothly. Despite hours of practice, I still have difficulty flying at high altitudes.

Ourania Fizgig, avatar for University of Arizona’s Adrienne Gauthier, giggles (yes, avatars can emote) and hands me a flight feather so that I can fly as high as I want. Learning to navigate in SL takes time, Ourania says. “When I first went into Second Life, I spent 30 hours — one whole week — immersing myself and finding links to various places. I don’t think I felt comfortable until I was in the world for maybe 80 hours.”

For her online lab sessions at the university, she brings in real-life assistants to help student users navigate in SL. Still, many of them are struggling at the end of the semester to complete even the basic tasks.

Ourania leads me to an island she developed for the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory called LivingintheUniverse. Here, her students have created an interactive timeline of Earth’s history, from 4.6 billion years ago to the present. As we enter the timeline, Ourania interrupts the tour to show me how to run. Crossing through the ages, we zigzag between asteroids in the late heavy bombardment period, and sprint through a torrential downpour that simulates the conditions 4.2 billion years ago when the oceans started to form.

Further down the timeline, posters dot the landscape, illustrating various scientific events through the ages: the first living cell, the beginning of photosynthesis and the birth of science. By clicking a poster, users can collect information on each event.

Gauthier says she is looking for ways to make exhibits more active, especially as she plans ahead to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy in 2009. Recently named to the SL-wide, multi-institutional committee for this celebration, she is applying for grants to open a virtual astronomy center that could offer the latest news and imagery on astronomical objects.

“There are some incredible things you can do in SL, but it takes money to purchase the land and hire the kinds of experts and gurus that know how to make things work,” she says.

The cost of buying and maintaining an island for the first year is in excess of $3,000. Though researchers say SL funding is scarce, some funds are available. The National Science Foundation, for example, has provided more than $6.5 million to date to explore and develop educational opportunities in SL and other virtual worlds. Amme’s nuclear reactor is funded by a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

In-world conferencing
While some scientists seek ways to raise funds for their SL projects in the real world, others are finding ways to make a living in-world. One is Troy McConaghy, who helps others develop exhibits and events in SL such as NanoLands, a relatively new site on NanotechnologyIsland. After receiving his doctorate in aeronautics and astronautics from PurdueUniversity, McConaghy entered SL. For the past three years, he has documented the evolution of SL science in his blog at, where he lists all SL science sites and events.

“At first it was easy because there wasn’t a whole lot to keep track of,” he says. Now the list includes an ever-growing string of conferences and seminars. “I can see a day in the not-so-distant future when there is an event going on every day in science.”

McConaghy, whose avatar Troy McLuhan attends several meetings a week in SL, says virtual conferencing is one of the fastest-growing SL activities, allowing people to attend meetings they couldn’t ordinarily fit into their time or budget. This April, the International Virtual Association of Surgeons hosted the first fully in-world SL conference.

Virtual conferencing is especially advantageous in science, McConaghy adds, where research efforts can transcend several disciplines. “Molecular biologists and electrical engineers may be doing similar things in modeling and simulations, but they wouldn’t ordinarily go to each others’ conferences,” he says.

And the public’s interaction with virtual worlds is just beginning, he says. A presence in Second Life or some other virtual world may become as commonplace as having an e-mail address.

His words remind me of something Scott said when she talked about developing the lecture series for Nature. “Second Life is real life. It’s just a different medium for communication.”

Back in Second Life, I set out for one more place, a destination I will likely never travel to in real life — the moon. I reach the site of the Apollo 11 landing through a link set up by ElonUniversity and grab a pair of space boots. As I explore the moon and the machinery left behind, the boots leave imprints of my tracks on the moon’s surface. Finally, I prepare to leave, stashing my flight feather away in my inventory. I’ll soon be returning to Second Life for a second look.

Terra Questi is the avatar identity of Susan Gaidos, a freelance science writer in Maine.

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