Gems and Jewels, by Lance Grande and Allison Augustyn. Touch Press, 2011. (For iPad)
Reviewed by Virginia Hughes (guest reviewer)
One morning a couple of weeks ago, I found myself atop a dirt mound, surrounded on all sides by green hills and trees, watching a man in a pit.
Wearing a blue hardhat and matching shirt, he was slowly, steadily, tediously swinging a shovel into the muddy walls around him, paying no mind to the gawking tourists above. All of his attention was fixed on unearthing some shiny yellow nuggets: imperial topaz.
The gemstone, which can range in color from dingy champagne to deep tangerine, is found almost exclusively here in Minas Gerais (Portuguese for “general mines”), Brazil. My tour guide said it fetches some $2,000 per carat.
For all I learned that day about the country’s landscape, economy and the harsh business of mining, I didn’t entirely grasp the natural science behind these sparkling commodities. What created the imperial topaz? Why is it so rare? Why is it sometimes yellow and sometimes red? When I got home, I turned to the Gems and Jewels app on my iPad to fill in the blanks.
Granted, teaching science is not really the point. One of the authors, Lance Grande, is the curator of the perennially popular Grainger Hall of Gems at the Field Museum of Natural History, in Chicago. The purpose of Gems and Jewels is to show off this undeniably fabulous collection.
It showed me, for example, one of the world’s largest pieces of red imperial topaz: 97.45 carats set in flames of rose gold and diamonds. I zoomed in so far on a piece of Mexican amber that I could see the legs of the 30-million-year-old insect trapped inside. I not only examined the face of the sun god that the Aztecs carved into a large opal some 500 years ago, but spun it around and saw the black floral designs painted on the backside. When it comes to gems, I don’t think there’s anything as good as seeing the real McCoy, but this technology comes pretty damn close.
I’d expect nothing less from the publisher, Touch Press, already famous for the interactive visuals in The Elements and The Solar System. These apps are beautiful, thorough and useful reference books, so it’s no surprise that iPad users are devouring them: The Elements has sold more than a quarter of a million copies. This new genre is popular, perhaps, for the same reasons that Encyclopedia Britannica was before the digital era, and as Wikipedia is now.
But forgive me if, at the end of the day, I can’t get very excited about a reference book. Just as intellectuals of the last century would pull out a heavy Britannica volume to look up this or that fact, I might open the Gems & Jewels app the next time I’m wondering about where my amethyst ring came from, or why it’s my birthstone (hint: it involves zodiac charts). But it won’t keep me up at night.
As Jennifer pointed out, so far these apps lack strong narratives. So for all of the fun flipping and zooming and rotating, the information isn’t likely to stick. I haven’t been wrestling with its characters or themes, because it doesn’t have any. And that’s a shame. Why can’t we have apps just as visually arresting as Gems and Jewels but that also tell compelling stories?
As I learned in Minas Gerais, the most important and powerful stories about gemstones are about people—those who buy, sell and dig them up.
Virginia Hughes is a science writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, Popular Science and Scientific American. Follow her on Twitter.