Science-themed e-books and mobile apps are beginning to account for a significant segment of the digital marketplace — and that segment is growing.
But as the supply of ebooks/apps about science continues to swell, it is becoming increasingly difficult to not only keep tabs on new releases, but to determine which releases are worthy of your attention — let alone your hard-earned cash, or the space on your phone/tablet/reader's hard drive.
Enter Download The Universe.
Download the Universe is a new site that unites fifteen of the internet's leading science communicators in a brand-new venue: an online forum, featuring incisive reviews of science-themed apps and ebooks, that will serve as a guide to the future of scientific information. This is definitely uncharted territory, but it's shaping up to be a very compelling project. (Caveat: io9's Annalee Newitz is an editor at DTU.)
The scientific e-review is the brainchild of The Loom's Carl Zimmer. We've included an excerpt from his introduction to the project here, but you'll definitely want to check out the rest. The first review — an evaluation of the popular iPad app, The Elements, written by Pulitzer-prize winning science writer Deobrah Blum — is already live.
Here's how Zimmer introduces the site:
We may now be at a new stage in the history of science books. In just the past few years, tens of millions of people have bought tablets—iPads, Kindles, Nooks, and more—on which they are reading books. In many cases, they are just reading digitized versions of traditional printed books. For these readers, ebooks are distinguished only by convenience. You can read an edition of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks that weighs a few ounces, or you can read one that is a stream of bits stored along with a hundred other science books in your phone.
When media change, however, possibilities change with them. Vesalius knew this 460 years ago. His book had two parts: the text, in which he explained how human anatomy work; and the art, in the form of 200 woodblocks based on Vesalius's knowledge of the human body from autopsies. Vesalius packed the manuscript and the woodblocks on mules and sent them over the Alps to Basel, Switzerland, with explicit instructions. Every copy of the book had the same exquisitely accurate, enlightening mix of art and text. Vellum scrolls could never have held Vesalius's dream.
Ebooks are once again redrawing the boundaries. Walk into a book store and look at the science section. Most of the books are between about 200 and 400 pages. Most are created by large publishing houses. There's nothing fundamentally wrong about a 50-page book, of course. It just doesn't fit comfortably into the publishing business—a business that has to contend with costs for printing books, storing them in warehouses, shipping them to book stores, and accepting returned books. Ebooks create an economic space for the very short book (and the very long one). They also allow authors to reach readers without having to persuade a publisher that their book will earn back an investment.
A tablet can display the text of a book, but that's only one of an infinite number of tasks it can carry out. It can illustrate a book with video instead of a static picture. Instead of Vesalius's two-dimensional masterpieces, an anatomy book can include a three-dimensional body that the reader can explore with flicks of fingers.
Some people question whether such a creations really are "books." Aren't we just talking about oversized magazine articles and text-heavy apps? We may not be able to answer that question for a while, as we experiment with creating and reading these newly hatched things.
Many of the necessary elements are falling into place for this experiment. Programming is becoming painless and powerful. Readers can buy ebooks with a tap on a sheet of glass. And there are enough readers now that they can conceivably support a community of ebook authors.
But there's something missing in between. It is still tough for readers to discover new science ebooks. Traditional book reviews limit themselves to works on paper. Some ebooks may appear in computer magazines, but buried in reviews of laptops and printers. In between, we need a community.
This project could help foster that community. Be sure to check it out — new reviews will go up every day.