Celebrity physicist Brian Cox is famous in the U.K. for making physics accessible to the public through bestselling books and several popular TV series. Now he brings elements of both to a gorgeous new iPad app: Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe ($6.99).
Featuring amazing animations and lush, high-production video, the app will sweep you back in time to witness the Big Bang, and then look ahead to the universe’s end, when the last black dwarfs will fizzle away to entropy.
As Prof. Cox points out: while the universe evolves momentarily from order to chaos, now is a precious window of time when life is briefly possible, for us to be able to contemplate the universe…
The Wonders of the Universe app contains over two and a half hours of video, hundreds of amazing images and lots of fascinating words written by Cox and Andrew Cohen, the BBC’s Head of Science. To the British public, Cox is a familiar face on TV and well-known voice on radio, explaining physics in accessible terms.
Unlike Prof. Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time (the best-selling book that no one read), Cox’s app is dead simple to use, look at, read, and understand.
The app works by dividing the subject matter (the universe) into a logical progression of conceptual steps, expertly guided by Cox, toward an overview of the present, past creation, and future heat-death of Everything — from the very, very small inner cosmos to the astronomically enormous out there in space.
We learn about particle physics (subatomic particles built from combining quarks and electrons), their formation in the Big Bang, their packing into the chemical elements, and the continuous production of heavier elements in the nuclear fusion reactions that go on within stars and supernovae. We see how some elements combine to form compounds that allow life to occur. We are presented with a historical timeline of astronomers’ investigations of the heavens, the discoveries they made and their scientific implications.
The steps are divided into a useful sequence of chapters, on subatomic and atomic particles, the solar system, stars, the Milky Way, other galaxies and “the universe” — this last being an excellent guide to how today’s physicists perceive light, gravity, and time.
The chapters of this massive grand tour are explored by tapping icons on the app’s interface to reveal short video clips of Cox presenting an introduction to each topic, with further text and images available by swiping the screen. The short films, featuring the angelically smiling, roving Cox on location in a series of breathtaking settings, show him performing experimental demonstrations of physics, contemplating grand views of ancient and modern astronomical observatories, and traveling far and wide in search of clues to the mysteries of the universe.
He is not afraid to free-fall in a jet airplane hurtling at G-force towards the ground. He ventures up to the arctic circle to view the Aurora Borealis, to India to observe a total solar eclipse, to Chile’s rainless Atacama desert to seek life. He traverses the Canadian Rockies and burrows down California gold mines. The films are lavish treks across the world; the images of distant celestial objects, animations of protons and neutrons, planets and stellar clusters, are quite marvelous in this gorgeously visual app. You can take a quick tour of the solar system and beyond into interstellar space by swiping the app’s Milky Way animation, which is spectacular.
Although an overview of modern and historical (and prehistoric) physics and astronomy, the treatment of the subject matter chooses to avoid math, apart from a single equation, Isaac Newton’s famous F = Gm1m2/r^2 (which says the gravitational force between two objects is proportional to the product of their masses divided by the distance between them [or their centers] squared). This landmark discovery formulated by Newton in 1687 simply means that gravimetric attraction increases with the mass of bodies and falls off geometrically with the length of their separation (double the distance, quarter the attraction, ten times the distance, one-hundredth the attractive force, etc). All the other physics concepts in this app are likewise adequately explained in words, without getting bogged down in the mathematical symbols.
However, this approach leads to the common failing of all the attempts that I have come across (even by such stellar luminaries as Isaac Asimov, Stephen Hawking, and Bertrand Russell), of inadequately trying to explain advanced topics such as quantum theory and Einstein’s relativity without resorting to numbers. This is because these branches of physics are essentially mathematical formulations. The absolute value of the speed of light in a vacuum and its insuperable maximum speed possible, for example, is a numerical constant and inserting this lead balloon within classical equations describing the linear motions and parabolic orbits of Newtonian objects led the early followers of relativity theory to have to jettison preexisting notions of space and time. Unfortunately, this finding is demonstrated most clearly using mathematical models — it’s not very convincing otherwise, since it goes against our daily experiences of the sizes of things and our feeling of the passing of time.
Still, this app does an entertaining and illuminating job of explaining the known machinations of the universe. And words do not always fail to get across the message without recourse to mathematical equations. Take for example this description of the very very early universe:
At around a million million million million million millionths of a second after the Big Bang, the universe went through an astonishingly rapid phase of expansion in which it increased in volume by a factor of around a million billion billion billion billion billion billion billion billion billion in about 10^32 seconds or so. Before inflation, the part of the universe we now observe, all the hundreds of billions of galaxies in our night sky, would have been far, far smaller than a single subatomic particle.
I was also surprised that there has not been any really new physics of astronomy since I was a student twenty years ago. OK, the distant orbiting rock Pluto has been demoted from planetary status and doesn’t even get a mention in this app. But apart from that, I cannot see much new science presented here. True, most of the great discoveries were made in the wake of the invention of the telescope four hundred years ago, and again during the golden years of the atomic theory last century. Something that has emerged, however, is presented here and what makes this app so appealing–the glorious visual images provided by space probes and the Hubble Space Telescope. Wonders of the Universe is just that.
This app contains a huge amount of material, with no glaring omissions to the subject matter that I can think of. Nor did I detect any scientific errors that tend to creep in when professional physicists rethink their field in unfamiliar ways so as to expound to the lay public. For instance, when Cox mentions that photons do not have mass, I had to check this because I remember from my university days that light is bent by gravity — but no, he is right, a photon would have mass if it kept still, but since it whooshes around at 300,000 km per second it has zero mass. It is space that is warped by gravity; photons follow the curve of space-time rather than become embroiled by gravitational forces.
On the other hand, there is precious little interaction on this app. It is very much Cox’s show. We watch and listen to him enthuse about science and then read what he writes about it. For users who are used to playing with their iPads, there is not much for their fingers to do. I reckon a few clever learning toys might have enhanced this app. As the physics boffs at my old university used to say: “All theory and no practice makes Jack a dull boy” (or something like that).
One feature that I did not like is the search function. Instead of providing a useful glossary, entries typed into the finder directory will suggest key words from the app’s text and provide links to those, which is a vicious circle. Rather than adding new information about something in the text you want to know more about, it sends you back to its original entry in the text. A searchable glossary to an appendix of deeper information, even containing mathematical proofs, would have really complemented this app.
All in all, Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe app is a colorful and informative overview of a modern physicist’s view of the universe. There is a lot to absorb here, which took me two days to get through: it seems that an entire BBC series has been condensed into the app. Great for both newcomers to the subject and those, like me, who once studied astronomy but forgot it all aeons ago.
Pros: Comprehensive, comprehensible, cosmic.
Cons: Unsearchable, not very interactive.