By Carl Zimmer
If you are curious about the world--about its galaxies, its clouds, its quarks, its crickets--then you probably own at least a few books about science. Or you have a lot. The book--by which I mean bound sheets of paper marked by moveable type--is one of the best devices for storing and retrieving information about science. It is also the kind of device we can fall in love with. On my own shelves, I have new books that are bringing me up to date on genome biology and dark matter, as well as dinged-up old books, such as a paperback edition of The Origin of Species, Stephen Jay Gould's The Panda's Thumb, and The Encyclopedia of Plagues and Pestilence. We dip back into old books, or reread them in full, and they thus keep us company through our time on this planet.
This relationship to science books is less than 500 years old. As soon as Gutenberg introduced movable type, he ignited a fierce demand for books about science. Vesalius published the first modern book about anatomy, On the Fabric of the Human Body, in 1543, and he sold 4000 copies in a matter of months. (Pirated editions cropped up soon as well.) Some science books were written by experts for experts, often in Latin, but many others were intended for a wider audience. In 1638, the natural philosopher John Wilkins published The Discovery of a World in the Moone. The book--which Wilkins wrote in English--introduced Great Britain to the ideas of Copernicus and Galileo. Nearly four centuries after Wilkins took his readers to the moon, a healthy flow of new science books are published each year.
We may now be at a new stage in the history of science books. In just the past few years, tens of millions of people have bought tablets--iPads, Kindles, Nooks, and more--on which they are reading books. In many cases, they are just reading digitized versions of traditional printed books. For these readers, ebooks are distinguished only by convenience. You can read an edition of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks that weighs a few ounces, or you can read one that is a stream of bits stored along with a hundred other science books in your phone.
When media change, however, possibilities change with them. Vesalius knew this 460 years ago. His book had two parts: the text, in which he explained how human anatomy work; and the art, in the form of 200 woodblocks based on Vesalius's knowledge of the human body from autopsies. Vesalius packed the manuscript and the woodblocks on mules and sent them over the Alps to Basel, Switzerland, with explicit instructions. Every copy of the book had the same exquisitely accurate, enlightening mix of art and text. Vellum scrolls could never have held Vesalius's dream.
Ebooks are once again redrawing the boundaries. Walk into a book store and look at the science section. Most of the books are between about 200 and 400 pages. Most are created by large publishing houses. There's nothing fundamentally wrong about a 50-page book, of course. It just doesn't fit comfortably into the publishing business--a business that has to contend with costs for printing books, storing them in warehouses, shipping them to book stores, and accepting returned books. Ebooks create an economic space for the very short book (and the very long one). They also allow authors to reach readers without having to persuade a publisher that their book will earn back an investment.
A tablet can display the text of a book, but that's only one of an infinite number of tasks it can carry out. It can illustrate a book with video instead of a static picture. Instead of Vesalius's two-dimensional masterpieces, an anatomy book can include a three-dimensional body that the reader can explore with flicks of fingers.
Some people question whether such a creations really are "books." Aren't we just talking about oversized magazine articles and text-heavy apps? We may not be able to answer that question for a while, as we experiment with creating and reading these newly hatched things.
Many of the necessary elements are falling into place for this experiment. Programming is becoming painless and powerful. Readers can buy ebooks with a tap on a sheet of glass. And there are enough readers now that they can conceivably support a community of ebook authors.
But there's something missing in between. It is still tough for readers to discover new science ebooks. Traditional book reviews limit themselves to works on paper. Some ebooks may appear in computer magazines, but buried in reviews of laptops and printers. In between, we need a community.
Download the Universe is a step towards that community. It is the work of a group of writers and scientists who are deeply intrigued by the future of science books. (You can find our names and links to our web sites on the right.) Here we review science ebooks--broadly defined, except for ebooks that are just spin-offs of print books. We hope to build up a library of titles that curious readers can browse. Some reviews will be positive, others negative. We welcome your own judgments, and we look forward to vibrant (but civilized) discussions in the comment threads. We will also write essays from time to time about the changes that publishing is undergoing.
As we continue to build Download the Universe, we may change our minds about the scope of its mission. We can't say what those changes will be. We can only be sure they will be here before too long.
Carl Zimmer writes frequently about science for the New York Times and is the author of 13 books, including A Planet of Viruses