Wonders of the Universe

You know what a coffee table book is:  big, glossy, great pictures accompanied by undemanding text, a thing of beauty meant more for browsing than sustained study.  That exactly describes the iPad app I am reviewing this week called “Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe,” by Prof. Brian Cox, rock star physicist of LHC (Large Hadron Collider) fame, and Andrew Cohen, head of BBC Science.  The work was “created” by Collins, as in Harper Collins Publishers, with the outstanding work of adapting it to the iPad screen credited to a group called theOTHERmedia.  The app sells at a “promotional launch price” of 6.99, but is well worth it if you like spectacular, elegant productions heavy on popular science interest but light on depth.  This is not a criticism, rather a classification.

H -R Diagram
Thumbnail of Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram

Brian Cox (hereafter known as BC for our purposes) as presenter is at the core of the app, which is good because he is a good presenter.  We get BC ranging about the earth explaining things it took mankind millennia to understand, like the apparent retrograde motion in the orbit of Mars, on a stone floor with a charred stick.  We get BC staring off into the middle distance, BC staring off into the far distance, BC head on a swivel on a craggy peak, BC by the old camp fire, BC deep sea fishing, BC in desert wastes, Andean heights, in parkas, in T-shirts, in fashionable jackets, and so on.  Lots of BC.  As I say, as long as you enjoy the modern TV-inspired light documentary style of Nova or the History Channel, you will like this sort of thing.  Once again, this is not really a criticism, just a description.  The app is chock full of streamed videos, most, if not all, under 2 minutes of BC explaining something about the topic under discussion.  In addition to the videos there are lots and lots of still pictures, almost all appropriate, though once in a while I saw a couple apropos of nothing in particular, and several very well done diagrams that pack lots of detail into the iPad screen and beg to be pinch enlarged.

BCWondersLogoWhat I like best about the app is its steadfast adherence to facts.  The videos, graphics, and text avoid mention of fashionable but unwarranted pseudo-scientific speculation on string theory or multiverses, and stick to the solid facts under discussion, which are wonderful enough.  While the text occasionally opts for the gee-whiz Ripley’s-believe-it-or-not emphasis—all the gold every dug out of the earth would fill only 3 Olympic-sized swimming pools— mostly it delivers a serious, thoughtful and elucidating explanations of physics and astronomy concepts.  The discussion is pitched at the popular bright novice level, but what there is of it is excellent and wrapped in a very appealing and entertaining package.

The app is structured into 7 content subdivisions followed by two “tours,” which recapitulate a good deal of the content areas and add additional connecting materials.  The 7 content areas are:

  • Subatomic
  • Atomic
  • Solar System
  • Stars
  • Milky Way
  • Galaxies
  • Universe

The two tours are:

  • Brian’s Tour: Wonders of the Solar System
  • Brian’s Tour: Wonders of the Universe

The format, layout and navigation of all nine of these areas is the same.  The overall app menu appears by tapping at the top of the screen and selecting subdivision, then each subdivision is divided into multiple “chapters” as it were, that are navigated by a sliding menu bar at the bottom of the screen.  To enter any of the chapters simply drag it up into the screen.  Each “chapter” has an introductory video or text followed by a video, followed by more text, static pictures (or series of pictures that can be swiped through), followed by other videos, text, graphics, and so on until the end of the “chapter.”  You can close the “chapter” with a control or simply push it above the top of the screen to exit to the menu bar.

Wonders of the Universe Menu Bar
Reduced-size screen shot of menu bar

The interface is elegant and intuitive.  videos and graphics expand to fill the screen when pushed up, and contract again when further pushed to access text.  The text is clear, concise, and as I say, factual.  The app topic list is searchable.

I have just a couple minor complaints.  It would be nice to include a method to bookmark your place in the app.  It is so extensive that it cannot be consumed in a single sitting, so a bookmark feature would be nice.  It would also be nice to be able to increase font size.  Young eyes will not have a problem, but older eyes need it.  While I’m wishing, an annotation feature would also be nice.  (I think the ease of highlighting, bookmarking and annotations with devices like Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet are spoiling me into expecting these features in every app).

The app is a spinoff, apparently, from the book, but has features that make it truly valuable in itself.  You will find yourself fascinated and entertained by this app, and at $6.99 I regard it as a bargain, having seen many apps deliver far less for higher prices.  If you want deep scientific discussion look elsewhere, but if you want a solid, factual introduction to some of the wonders of physics, chemistry, and astronomy in an elegant and entertaining package this is it.