Robert C. Amme, a research professor of physics at the University of Denver, thinks there aren't nearly enough scientists with expertise in managing nuclear waste. So to train the next generation of environmental assessment specialists, he's taking them to a place where there's no radiation, nuclear fallout or even laws of gravity.
Armed with a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Amme and his colleagues are preparing to build a nuclear reactor -- in the virtual, online world of Second Life .
The interface, created by Linden Research, has over 8 million users who can interact with and help shape their own online environments, including the ability to buy and sell property using a proprietary currency and meet new people. Yet critics have contended that Second Life's influence is overrated and has little offline value; still only a fraction of its members actively participate in the virtual "metaverse."
But Amme thinks its capabilities are perfectly suited to a project that will actually have an impact in the real world.
The problem, he says, is that since a new nuclear power plant hasn't been built in the United States for decades, there is a knowledge gap that could pose a serious problem if the country returns to the energy path it largely abandoned in the late 1970s but which may become more popular, given continuing concerns over the availability of oil from foreign sources and global warming.
"People can learn what nuclear energy really entails and how minimal the risks are," he said.
Now, to address the issue, Amme is helping to design a master's program in applied science with an emphasis on environmental impact assessment that will feature classes held in Second Life. They'll be housed in the Science School  building, more 1's and 0's than bricks and mortar, located on an "island" that's a kind of virtual playground for scientists: Science School is nestled behind a three-dimensional, real-time weather map with pixellated clouds hovering above the ground, near a telescope that can be used to view constellations during the winter, when its real-life counterpart at the University of Denver is inaccessible due to snow-covered mountain roads.
It's the kind of environment that has caused Second Life gurus such as Jeff Corbin, a research associate in physics and astronomy at Denver, to dream in pixels. Corbin, who's involved with the NRC project, envisions an online world where, eventually, "you get in an old time machine … and go back to the creation of the universe in a virtual sense."
But for now, he'll content himself with experiments illustrating the ins and outs of more mundane phenomena such as absorptive properties and the effects of ionizing radiation. The idea, Corbin said, is to run actual experiments in the lab and then write software that will duplicate the exact processes for distance learners. "As long as [the distance learners] have access to the Web, they should be able to do the same kinds of experiments that the local students would be able to do if they were taking a laboratory course in physics," Amme said.
In a way, running experiments and teaching classes in Second Life offers a number of advantages over real life: students watching from their computer screens won't have to wear expensive radiation badges or obtain clearance to enter an actual laboratory. Instead, they can attend in the guise of "avatars" -- virtual likenesses, like personalized computer game characters, whose appearance and features can be customized.
They can also interact with other avatars, a key to making a successful virtual classroom, Amme said, and a major advantage over more traditional Web-based distance learning programs.
"We think that a hands-on laboratory experience is the best teacher, and to be able to do this in Second Life is a marvelous breakthrough, a marvelous opportunity," he said. "The Web itself is rather benign by comparison because there's no interactivity. ... What's missing in a lot of distance learning is the socialization [among] students."
There are other benefits too: Avatars don't flinch when they're doing gamma ray spectroscopy. "We don't have to be worrying about the control of actual nuclear specimens because they can't be stolen," Amme pointed out. And, "you don't have to worry about using plutonium, for example, as a source of neutrons." Virtual radiation suit, check.
Details of the master's program are still being worked out, but it could begin as early as January. The grant was awarded for an initial one-year period, but Amme hopes it will become self-sustaining with tuition after three.
Part of what will make the project work, he said, is a collaboration with industry. The Englewood, Colo.-based engineering firm CH2M HILL  wrote a letter of support for the grant in hopes that it will be able to find potential talent in the pool of graduates.
But beyond training experts and employing graduates, Amme aims to educate the general public, which he believes is woefully underinformed when it comes to matters of nuclear energy and radiation. As it happens, Science School itself is part of a larger collection of attractions in Second Life known as the "SciLands " -- islands run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and other institutions. Imperial College London, for one, recently opened a demonstration "hospital of the future."
The Science School project, and the related master's program, are still in development. But Corbin is optimistic: "Time in Second Life moves very fast." He's got ideas like real-time translation of lectures into other languages on his mind -- but for now, the lecture halls and laboratories need some virtual cleaning up.