Second Life

24 February 2008

Interview with 

Gordon Clarke from NPL and Dave Taylor from Imperial College


Front view of the Naked Scientists Studio in the heart of the SciLands


Second Life Beach party
A beach party in Second Life, location: T Online Beach (115,40,21) © Dimelin

Chris - Some people say, 'why don't you go and get a first life before you worry about your second life.'  But in fact, Second Life is a phenomenon on the internet where there's a whole virtual world.  We've got two pioneers who've done some great stuff in terms of what's happening with the science that you'd find in Second Life with us today and that's Gordon Clarke.  He's a researcher and he's based in the National Physical Laboratory and also Dave Taylor from Imperial College, London.  Let's kick off first of all with Dave. So Dave, what actually is Second Life?

Dave - Second Life is a 3-dimensional virtual world made of islands which can either be standalone or joined together on two continents.  Much of Second Life is to do with social things and entertainment but there is a serious side and a lot of scientists and technologists in Second Life meet, collaborate, attend meetings or discussions.

Chris - How does it work?  What's the interface, how do you get into Second Life?

Dave - You have to run the specialised browser which you can download from or from

Chris - That's free.

Dave - It's free, yes that's right but you can't use a web browser.  That, basically, gives you a view into this virtual world which is about 15 times the size of Manhattan so there's a lot there.

Chris - Wow, that is quite large.  So if someone were to appear there what would they see?  How would they be incarnated in this second life?

Dave - You have a great deal of choice about what you look like.  You get to choose if you're male or female.  You get to choose what your clothing is, your hair colour - everything like that.  It's totally customisable. It's up to you what you look like.

Chris - This could be quite good for people who don't really want to look the way they do if they feel a bit intimidated interacting with people in real life then they can have all the interactions.  You can presumably talk and send messages to people in Second Life but you don't have to like yourself, basically.

Dave - Yeah, that's right.  I think there's two groups really: people who like to look a little bit like themselves and people who want to look completely different to themselves.

Chris - What do you look like?

Dave - I look kinda similar to myself.

Gordon - So do I!

Dave - ...but quite a bit younger, I think.

Gordon - Umm, about right.

Chris - So would you fool
Kate Smith-Miles' software that we were talking about earlier with your avatar?  When you're wondering around in Second Life you're wondering round as you see yourself as a person in there?

Dave - That's right and of course other people.  Immediately you get person-to-person interaction which you don't normally get when you're staring into a computer screen.

Chris - What about if you want to converse with someone?  We're having a chat, we've got eye contact so if I was in Second Life as a person I'd see myself and say, Dr Kat here and you guys.  I could see you there and if we wanted to talk what would happen?

Dave - You can type and some people are a little bit too shy to speak so they're quite happy typing.  You can give private messages to one-another as well.  As you type the words come up above your head or you can speak.

Chris - Real speech?

Dave - Absolutely, it's like Skype on steroids.

Chris - Why do you say that?

Listening to the Naked Scientists live in Second LifeDave - Because it's three-dimensional sound.  So if somebody's in the left you hear them on the left.  If they walk towards you they get louder.  Unlike the real world, you can actually move your point of view and your ear goes with your eye, as it were, so you can listen to the group in the corner.

Chris - Let's look at the sort of science that's going on there because this sounds like an amazing tool to do science with as well.  What sorts of projects are going on at the moment to get the message about science across?

Gordon - I think you have to remember that when you go in the world, when you go into Second Life, everything you see has been created by one of the other Avatars.  It's the users that create everything.  If you want to do something scientific you take your design or experiment or whatever it is and you go in the world and you build it.  You can build anything from - there's a Mars impact simulator, which is brilliant because you have this asteroid that comes down out of the sky and hits the ground in front of you.  There's big flames that fly everywhere and a big crater forms.

Dave - You can go on a ride to the planet.

Chris - Who hosts you?  Is that Richard Branson and Virgin or is it existing characters?

Gordon - No, he's not in there yet.

Chris - Who takes you to the planets then?

Dave - The International Space Flights Museum has got this ride to the planets.  It's a Gemini rocket.  You just hop in and you launch yourself.

Chris - How realistic is this?  Is it (a) scientifically realistic and reasonable - you're not bending scientific rules to do this; and is it also [b] a valid educational experience - people learn something by doing this?

Dave - Absolutely yes.  The trip to the planets takes you past the International Space Station, you can have a look at the space shuttle.  You can visit the planets; you can even visit the surface of Mars and see some of the vehicles that have landed there.

Second Health Hospital
Second Health Hospital © NPL

Gordon - Last week I took a trip round a testicle.

Chris - What?!

Gordon - Well, quite!  I'm not going to repeat that again but it was looking at spermatogenesis: the formation of sperm within the testicle.

Chris - So you it's a big, blown up version?

Gordon - Yes.  It's absolutely huge.

Chris - It's almost like walking through the body in the Millennium Dome?

Gordon - You're sat in a little flying car that guides you through the various ducts.

Chris - So they could be very good for learning anatomy if you're a medical student.

Gordon - Yeah, it was very accurate.

Chris - How do you see this being extended?  One of the reasons you're here today is because you phoned me a while back to say, look, you think there could be some possibility for the Naked Scientists getting involved with this.  We actually did start talking.  We've done some stuff. Tell me a little bit about what you have in mind for this.

Dave - Well, it's great fun attending meetings in second life with other people.  There's a lot of repartee in the audience.  A lot of people will help to explain things to other people so actually listening to a radio show together is a great activity to do in Second Life.  We thought you could do with a studio audience and you can have one in Second Life.

Chris - Take us on a virtual radio tour of what you've set up for the Naked Scientists, Gordon.

Gordon - Well, we're part of a group of islands called the Scilands.  Right in the centre of the Scilands we have built you a radio theatre.  It's rather a fetching building with a radio mast sticking out of it and the name 'Naked Scientists' rotating in bright purple at the moment above it.  People can listen to test transmissions.  I'd just like to say hi to Troy and all the other people listening out there.

Naked Scientists Studio in the heart of the SciLands, courtesy of NPLDave - Hi Troy.

Gordon - People can just sit, relax and listen to the radio show.  There's a lot of chatter that goes on during the radio show.

Chris - You get the Naked Scientists radio show which is live.  We're piping it out of here and straight into there. So people who go there can hear it running but they're also able to talk to each other while the show's on: a sort of mini-discussion.  It's a bit like Oprah Winfrey but on the Naked Scientists, isn't it?

Gordon - Yeah.  I went to another radio show last week and ended up having quite an involved discussion on the philosophy of science.

Dave - The interesting thing is that a lot can come out of different disciplines meeting and having corridor discussions.  Where there aren't corridors in the real world.  We've built these corridors in Second Life.  For example, two organisations that normally wouldn't have got together - the University of Denver and the national Physical Laboratory - we decided we should build a nuclear reactor in Second Life.  That's a project that's now off the ground that's an Anglo-American collaboration.

Chris - When you say, 'build a nuclear reactor,' this presumably models a nuclear reactor so people can go in there, see what it looks like and see how it works.

Front view of the Naked Scientists Studio in the heart of the SciLandsDave - Yes, we're modelling a specific scientific experiment so again students don't have to be exposed to radiation.  They can do the experiments in safety.

Chris - It's the x-ray radiation from their computer screen!

Dave - In an LCD, maybe not.

Chris - Brilliant, well if people want to listen to the Naked Scientists in Second Life every Sunday how would they do that?

Gordon - As Dave said they would have to download the browser and register their own avatar.  They need to search for Scilands.

Dave - Even easier, if they actually register at and download from there then they will appear in the middle of the Scilands, right next to where your show will be broadcast.  They have a ten-minute orientation so they find out how to move around as an avatar, how to speak to people, how to listen and so on.


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