Brian Cox's Wonders of the Universe. Published by Harper Collins. iPad (2 and 3 only) $6.99 iTunes
Guest review by Jaime Green
When I was in fourth grade, I went to my first and only play date at my then-best friend's house. (We were just old enough that a boy-girl best friendship felt transgressive.) He showed me the periodic table poster in his bedroom, his mother stopped us drinking our sodas half-way through because they had aspartame, and we watched a NOVA special on sub-atomic physics.
It was in that suburban living room that I first fell subject to the power of the science TV program. The glittering animations, the serious but warm voice-over, the waves of knowledge washing over us. And sometimes, the enthusing host: Carl Sagan with his hair held aloft by an ocean wind. Neil de Grasse Tyson in a loud print shirt getting worked up about Isaac Newton. Their personalities and passions are the conduit not just into learning science, but learning to love it.
Brian Cox's Brian Cox's The Wonders of the Universe is one of the new attempts to render this experience portable, bringing Brian Cox – Manchester accent, wind-swept hair and all – into your hands in the form of an app for the iPad 2 or 3.
The app features over two and a half hours of video, culled from Cox's Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe BBC series, along with more than 200 articles drawn from the books published to accompany those series, written by Cox and Andrew Cohen, Head of Science at the BBC.
There are several ways in. Under the categories Sub Atomic, Atomic, Solar System, Stars, Milky Way, Galaxies, and Universe, you can work sequentially through a sequence of topics. “Universe” contains the subtopics Universe, Light, Gravity, and Time. Or you can select “Wonders of the Solar System” or “Wonders of the Universe,” wherein articles from the various categories are re-ordered into a best-of tour. There is also a simple search feature. Each article integrates video, text, and images to explain--well, the universe. Not just its wonders, but its workings as well.
Unfortunately, the multiple paths can lead to repetitions. If you read through the Universe section and then take the Wonders of the Universe tour, some articles will be repeated. And since a browsing reader can wander in from any direction--ostensibly one of the big advantages of an app over a linear book--each article must explain its concepts in full, leading to repetition between articles.
There is also a repetition in the calls to appreciate the glory of the universe. Somehow, sitting with an iPad in my lap on a crowded subway, these exaltations inspired less transcendent awe than they might've if they'd come glowing from the TV into my darkened home. I found the app to be the unhappy medium between TV and books. It feels like a little of each, and ends up being less absorbing than either.
You never forget that this is not The Wonders of the Universe but Brian Cox's The Wonders of the Universe. Many articles open with Cox's visage. These are stills from videos cued up to play, but if you use your iPad to read on the subway, or anywhere without an internet connection, all you will get of these videos is the still shot and a little “WiFi connection required to access this video” reminding you that you didn't pony up for a 3G-enabled iPad.
Even if you can't watch the videos, there are plenty of still photos of Cox gazing out over dramatic terrestrial landscapes. The section on "How to Use This App" even opens with a photo of Cox squinting meaningfully into the middle distance. (Maybe he is in on the joke--the orientation photo set on which you can practice your swiping features the same tousled Cox superimposed over a nebula, a galaxy, and a black hole eating a star.)
At first I was disappointed in the level of the material. I read through thinking, “Uh huh, uh huh. Yeah, I know that. Brian Cox, why are you in the desert?” But when I was eight, I was the kid watching NOVA specials on particle physics. In my own lay science nerd timeline, I would probably have loved this app when I was eleven or twelve. A curious layperson who's not already devoted to these subjects could find a lot to engage with. The material is clearly presented, and the presentation is visually pleasing.
It's more than visually pleasing, actually. This app is beautiful. (If you have your headphones in, lovely music tinkles through as you navigate.) The photographs, diagrams, and artists' renderings are stunning. Unlike some other elements of the app, the artwork successfully strikes the balance of inspiring wonder and conveying information.
In the writing, though, some things that worked well in the TV programs were translated too literally to an app that is, in many respects, a multimedia e-book. The segment on visible light begins with a paragraph about the Namib Desert, by tangential way of an introduction to the concept of visible versus. invisible light. On television, this description might work if it was uttered in a voiceover over helicopter shots of stunning vistas. In a printed text, it feels like a digression.
It may be worrying that the coolest, loveliest feature of Wonders of the Universe is its background. As you select a realm from the menu bar at the top of the screen, the background display tracks your journey. As you move from "Galaxy" to "Sub Atomic," for example, the Milky Way swings in to fill your screen. You zoom to a group of stars in one spiral arm and then you come to the solar system (with perhaps my favorite moment in the entire app, a pause outside the solar system at the glittering sphere of the Oort Cloud). Then you fall into the sun and dive all the way through an atom into a proton.
It is beautifully animated, so it feels like you are flying through space yourself, not just watching a camera's moves. This feature can also be manipulated by pinching or stretching the screen to zoom out or in. There is some navigational freedom - a small swipe over the Milky Way (counterintuitively, not a tap) brings up labels for Milky Way, Local Stars, Lagoon Nebula, and Crab Nebula. Inside the Lagoon Nebula you can learn about a stellar nursery and new-born stars.
When you zoom into the Crab Nebula, the pulsar at its heart is labeled, but no alchemy of taps or swipes could bring me to any content. If you search the app for “pulsars” you get an article that starts with the discovery of pulsars, visits the archeological remains of Chaco Canyon, spends a paragraph or two on supernovae, name-checks electron degeneracy pressure, briefly explains neutron stars, and then circles back to pulsars and testing General Relativity. It ends with Cox waxing effusive: “How majestic, how powerful, how wonderful is the human intellect... that it is able to account so precisely for the motion of the most alien objects in the Universe in the most extreme known conditions. That is why I love physics.”
I love physics, too. But somehow the enthusiasm wasn't entirely contagious.
Jaime Green is a graduate student in Columbia's MFA writing program. Her work has appeared in The Awl, Spezzatino, The Hairpin, and Parabasis. She is writing a book about the possibility of life in the universe.