The Solar System, by Marcus Chown. Touch Press, 2010. For iPad.
Reviewed by Jennifer Ouellette
The BBC's hugely popular modern reboot of Sherlock Holmes recasts the world's greatest detective as a high-functioning sociopath (by his own admission) who augments his legendary detection skills with all the latest technologies. Oh, and Watson has a blog.
But his account of their first case together, "A Study in Pink," rubs the detective the wrong way, because Watson has the bad taste to point out glaring holes in Holmes' otherwise impressive encyclopedic knowledge -- namely, he hasn't bothered to learn that the Earth revolves around the Sun. "It's primary school stuff, how could you not know that?" Watson marvels. An exasperated Holmes explains that his big fat brain is precious real estate and he just can't be bothered to store useless trivia; he has to focus on the important things that will help him solve real-world cases.
Watson: But it's the solar system!
Holmes: Oh, hell! What does that matter?! So we go around the sun! If we went around the moon or round and round the garden like a teddy bear, it wouldn't make any difference! All that matters to me is the work! Without that, my brain rots. Put that in your blog - or better still, stop inflicting your opinions on the world!
Let's not address Sherlock's somewhat antiquated notion of how memory works for now. (The computer hard drive analogy is soooo 2000.) I've got good news for the technology-loving consulting detective: now he doesn't have to store all that useless information about celestial bodies in his crammed-to-the-gills noggin, because science writer Marcus Chown and Touch Press have gathered all the essentials into a single iPad app/e-book: The Solar System. It's the follow-up to the publisher's impressive debut, The Elements (reviewed by Deborah Blum here).
What about the rest of us? Technically, this is an interactive app, not a bona fide ebook that relies on traditional narrative structure; it's not intended to be read straight through, although one certainly could do so. Mostly, it's designed for easy, intuitive navigation that enables a reader to browse randomly, and by that standard, it succeeds.
The text is simple, clear, and it's easily accessible to kids as well as adults, making it a truly G-rated app for the whole family. I personally enjoyed the whimsical touches and historical anecdotes sprinkled throughout, which add some color and context to the basic facts. A reference to a Ray Bradbury short story livens up what would otherwise be a rather dry explanation of the transit of Venus, and we also learn that one of Captain James Cook's famous voyages had the goal of witnessing such a transit in 1769.
Ultimately, though, this is really all about the multimedia, and on that score, The Solar System really delivers. Chown and Touch Press made excellent use of NASA's rich trove of archival images, video and animations, including all those jaw-dropping Hubble Space Telescope images that have been thrilling us for decades.
You can read about the surface of Mars, while watching a video that lets you swoop through the rocks and canals of the Red Planet -- all based on data collected by the Mars missions. And how much easier is it to grasp the birth of our solar system, if you can not only read Chown's crystal-clear description, but also watch it happen, thanks to a computer animation?
Best of all, even the plain images aren't static: you can pinch, swipe, and tap as needed to zoom in, zoom out, or rotate to your heart's content. Oh, go ahead -- set Jupiter spinning like a top! You know you want to, and that's what touch pads are for. Never mind if Sherlock sneers at your frivolity; he holds pretty much everyone in disdain.
As much I enjoyed playing with the app, and despite the high production values , I suspect we've barely scratched the surface of what might be possible. I'm especially looking forward to seeing what emerges as we move beyond marveling at the bells and whistles, and get better at using them to tell a bona fide story through the e-book medium -- something The Solar System isn't really trying to do. Which is fine; it does what it sets out to do, and it does it exceptionally well. But as a lover of stories, I'm still waiting for that seamless merging of narrative and technology.
There will always be a place for strong narrative, I think, even in the digital realm, but the way in which we tell those stories is going to evolve. Telling a story on film requires different tools and techniques than telling the same story on the printed page, and this isn't any different. We're still figuring out which tools and techniques best enhance the story in this brave new medium.
Who knows? By the time the toddler below gets to college, she'll probably find this sort of thing rather quaint and primitive -- almost elementary.
Jennifer Ouellette is the author of several popular science books, most recently The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse. She also blogs at Cocktail Party Physics and Discovery News. Follow her on Twitter.