The Elements, by Theodore Gray, Touch Press Publishing, 2010 Itunes for Ipad
Reviewed by Deborah Blum
I hate to admit this but for some time - okay, almost the two years since it was published - I cherished an attitude about Theodore Gray's dazzling e-tribute to the Periodic Table, The Elements. It was too jazzy, I told myself, too flashy. Of course, what I meant was that it was so successful.
It's easy to maintain that envy about The Elements even today. As The Wall Street Journal noted in a recent story on e-publishing, this virtuoso exploration of our chemical world remains "a runaway best-seller", selling more than 250,000 electronic copies and generating more than $2.5 million in income for Touch Press publishing.
But I'd like to here to get past author envy and take a serious look at what makes this publication so exceptionally successful - and, in fact, so exceptional. I should say at this point that I am superficially acquainted with Theodore Gray - we've both been part of programs on communicating chemistry. And that one of his comments about communicating chemistry has stayed with me- the idea that we can reach people afraid of the subject by showing them that it can also be beautiful.
Because The Elements is, indeed, foremost a thing of beauty. It's actually the electronic version of Gray's 2009 printed coffee table book of the same title, both shimmering with gorgeous images: the versatile element carbon is illustrated by the bright glitter of diamonds, the radioactive element radium is shown through the eerie blue-green glow of a vintage watch dial. But in the e-book version, these come playfully to virtual life. Some of the elements display in video; nitrogen as a flask swirling with an icy mist of the element in liquid form. Or the reader can set the still images spinning, the diamonds flashing, a vial of gold dust rotating front-label to back. The elements can even been seen in 3D if one purchases the special glasses (which I did not). And it includes an audio recording of Tom Lehrer's classic The Elements Song, which I have played so many times that I am now refusing to disclose the number.
In other words, it's game-like fun in a way that a coffee table book, even with same lovely photos by Gray's colleague, Nick Mann, cannot be. And it's worth noting that the e-version is sold as an app rather than an e-book. When I decided to give in and download it, I searched fruitlessly through iBooks before discovering it instead in the App Store (On the Touch Press website, it's offered strictly as an iPad app and an iPhone app.) I settled for the iPad version.
So is it actually a book, you might ask, if it's not even sold in a book store, if it's available on a few limited devices? Isn't one of the great achievements of the print publishing era, the ability to share information universally rather than limit it to a select few? And is my ability to spin a virtual copper necklace in comparable to what I learn from reading about that element in straightforward text? I think The Elements - and its undoubted success - raise all of those questions and more. And I think we're still figuring out the answers along with the future of the publishing business.
But let me briefly make a couple of other comparisons between this and its print version. Both do contain scientific data about each element (atomic number, weight, etc.) In the print book, of course, there's a treasure trove of this right there on the page. In the e-version, there's a compact summary but also much, much more through clicking on the Wolfram Alpha logo. You'll see the logo in the toolbar at the lower right on the image of the Bismuth page I've shown above; it looks like a fancy red star. This represents one of the ongoing tradeoffs as we move away from print - there's less likelihood of casual acquisition of information. But if we do seek out the online data, it's likely to be more current and more detailed - Wolfram Alpha allows you to go beyond its own database through links to a host of additional scholarly sources.
Obviously, in its app-like format, Gray's publication emphasizes the visuals over text. It's enticely easy to play with the virtual iodine-laced chewing gum package and skim over the accompanying paragraphs. And that's too bad because if you take the time, the writing is terrific - funny, smart, knowledgeable, friendly. In his introduction, Gray writes: "The earth, this iPad, your foot - everything tangible - is made of the elements. Your foot is made mostly of oxygen, with quite a bit of carbon joining it, giving structure to the organic molecules that define you as an example of a carbon-based life form. (And if you're not a carbon based life form: Welcome to Earth....)." There were times when I found the text even more fun than the virtual elements.
Interestingly, Gray's sequel to this success is a print book, Theodore Gray's Element Vault, which includes actual samples of elements, such as gold leaf, and replicas of classic documents from the history of chemistry. In other words, there are still times when a reader wants to hold, touch, review the real thing. But despite my reluctance to warm up to it, his e-book/app remains a wonderful package. It's no wonder that Gray was awarded the 2011 Grady-Stack award for communicating chemistry from the American Chemical Society - or that the publication has been such a phenomenol e-success. And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm leaving to treat myself for another attack of author envy. Perhaps another 100 or so rounds of The Elements Song will help.
Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer-prize winning science writer and the author of five books, most recently the best-selling The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. She writes for publications ranging from Slate to Scientific American and blogs about chemistry and culture at Speakeasy Science. She is a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.