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Shaken to the core

EARTH QUEST. Age range: 15+ CD-Rom for Multimedia PC and Apple Mac Retail price Pounds 29.99 including VAT Dorling Kindersley 9 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, London WC2E 8PS Tel: 0171 836 5411. Fax: 0171 836 7570. Web site: http:www.dk.com

Roger Frost is moved by the Earth's tummy rumbles

Intriguing things like volcanoes, earthquakes, and erosion have shaped and made our planet. With so much to show and animate it's surprising that it's taken so long for someone to think of doing a CD-Rom about it.

The someone had to be Dorling Kindersley, now secure in the premier league of CD-Rom publishers, and ready to take on a challenge. The new title, Earth Quest, delivers yet more dazzling 3-D, "walk-through" wonders. It lets you explore a cavernous museum with-in the Earth, to the sound of dripping water and the Earth's tummy rumbles.

If you have visited DK's other "virtual reality" museums (Dinosaur Hunter, Cat, Bird) you soon appreciate how easy it is to get a feel for what there is to know. For example, the museum stands sort out the types of rocks as oxides and silicates, as well as igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic. You can see samples, read about what is in them, and check out their properties.

Just recall that the topic has a high entrance fee - it needs lots of knowledge to fit it together. If knowledge is what you seek, and you have a 100-megabyte brain, this will probably fill it.

There are exciting things to find: a "violent earth gallery" puts you in an earthquake zone and lets you set one off. You can change the quake's magnitude and distance, watch a seismograph record it and see a model town crumble. A commentary explains what's happening, what causes it and describes the scale for measuring it. You can see the spread of "seismic waves", and hear how monitoring stations make sense of them. Similarly, you can build a volcano, change its variables and seek a gratifying result.

A mining area shows where the world's gems, metals and fossil fuels are located. Film clips show people at work on open pits and underground mines. It looks quite fun and, reading the text, I'd say that mining seems jolly nice - in short, health or other issues are mostly skated over. A section called shaping the Earth tells how valleys, canyons and coastlines arise. It explains too how the Earth first formed and how its rocks tell a story. Another exhibit splendidly animates the way the Earth's plates - its land masses - have shifted over time.

What is new and special is that as you browse, time ticks away, 10,000 years at a stroke, and every so often an alarm rings to say that silver, or agate is about to form any moment now. So you nip over to the rock face to watch gemstones and minerals growing before your eyes. It's over in 10 seconds, endlessly replayable and even if what is happening isn't well explained, this is a unique tool to make use of.

Also new is an up-front and substantial quiz that needs 60 answers to be culled from the museum's exhibits. For a curious student, this is a nice way of being driven to find out. For teachers with a syllabus to follow, some DIY teaching materials are called for, though nothing like this is included.

But when you stop clicking buttons and try to read the captions you realise that the text is not so easy peasy, nor is it helping your understanding.

That's not to write this off - because, like at a real museum, a good guide or teacher can bring the place to life. In other words, if you see yourself standing over Earth Quest to illuminate some ideas, or you're prepared to bash out a worksheet, there are certainly enough gems inside.

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