I push my way through the dense crowd, bumping and nudging and apologizing as I move. When I finally emerge from the gaggle of fans, there he is, sitting quietly in a corner chair at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. E.O. Wilson in the flesh. He is wearing a blue button-up shirt, khaki pants and a vest adorned with about 20 pockets, as if he is about to trek out into the savannah.
Wilson, renowned biologist, philosopher, and 83-year-old active conservationist, is clearly tired. He spent the preceding two hours taking questions from high school students and cutting the ribbon at a ceremony for a new digital biology textbook bearing his name. I kneel down at his side and, with only a moment of time to speak, ask him just one question: Why did he, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who retired more than a decade ago, decide to produce a textbook, much less a digital one?
I had a selfish reason to be curious. I am currently writing a traditional paper and ink college biology textbook for a major US publisher. I've spent years on the project and along the way have become intimately familiar with the textbook industry, which is still largely cemented in the print era. So why did Wilson, an old-school biologist who tracks ants for a living, decide to make a textbook for the iPad?
Wilson listened to my question, then looked at me silently for a moment as if the answer were completely obvious. "This will be the best textbook of any kind available in the world," he said, not a hint of irony in his tone. "It is designed to turn biology into an adventure without losing any of the rigor of science."
The best textbook in the world? That is a mighty claim, so I investigate. That night, I put on my favorite sweats, pour a glass of wine, then flip open my iPad to read E.O. Wilson's Life on Earth.
The $1.99 textbook is available only through iBooks, an app limited to the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch. The book, produced by Wilson and written by a cadre of science writers, currently contains 9 of 41 intended chapters, with a new unit added roughly every three months, says Morgan Ryan, project director of the book. It should be completed in early Spring 2014, she added.
In addition to Life on Earth, I had recently heard of a second digital biology textbook on the market, Nature Publishing Group's $49 Principles of Biology (disclosure: NPG is also the publisher of Scientific American). Together, Life on Earth and Principles of Biology are the first two "born digital" biology textbooks--that is, textbooks written and designed specifically for digital consumption.
(Note: there are a few other "born digital" resources for biology education, but these are primarily apps or short iBooks on specific subjects, such as marine biology. And some textbook publishers, including McGraw-Hill and Pearson, have made digital editions of their print biology textbooks available on iBooks, but those are not reviewed here.)
Life on Earth, written for high school biology classrooms, opens with a video featuring Wilson's favorite subject, the ant, accompanied by jaunty African music. Holding the iPad in landscape mode and scrolling a few pages in, I am greeted with sharp, spunky images: a virus, a cricket, the globe. As I flip page to page, the book is awash in bright, high-resolution images and animations that sometimes look even better than the real thing (seriously, phytoplankton has never looked so sexy).
A few pages in, I pause at the animation of a wriggling nucleosome--a conglomeration of purple alien-like proteins caught in a lasso of pink DNA. I cringe to admit that despite making a living writing about molecular and cellular biology, I constantly mix up nucleosomes and centrosomes, the same way other people mix up "their" and "they're." But thanks to this graphic, the image of nucleosome is now seared into my memory.
As I work my way through the physiological systems, there are many more images but I begin to find the interactive figures more intriguing. I turn a crayfish in circles to inventory his unique tools for living (okay, I'll be honest. I mostly spin him in circles and sing "Twist and Shout"). I watch the kaleidoscope transformation of a fruit fly embryo, genes flashing on and off as if at a disco. I cringe at a visualization of wildfires burning across the African continent.
In fact, the interactive features of Life are so addictive that I am disappointed every time a picture is nothing but... a picture. This is especially a letdown for concepts that beg for, but lack, animation, such as neurons that respond to pressure to trigger a nerve impulse. This contrasts with some concepts that didn't seem to need to be animated: Spinning a molecule of acetylcholine in 3D space is fun but doesn't seem entirely useful. If Wilson's book is truly meant to make biology an adventure, to bring biology to life for students, then the editors should use a discerning eye for where the perks of digital animation will make the most educational difference, and apply it there.
Finally, because I'm a huge nerd, I'll admit that my favorite digital feature of this textbook was the short review section at the end of each chapter, typically a summary with 4 to 5 questions per page. Unlike a traditional textbook, the questions include images, maps, diagrams, drag 'n drop answers and instant feedback.
Once I get 100% on the review questions (with my husband chiming in over my shoulder, trying to answer more quickly than I), I move onto Principles of Biology. I won't comment on the written content of each of the book, as it would hard for me to be impartial on that topic since I'm writing a textbook, and the books are geared toward two different education levels: high school (Life) and college (Principles).
Principles is composed of 196 "modules" that can be customized by a teacher into a digital textbook of any desired length. The complete book was officially launched last February and will continuously be updated as a "living edition," according to Rachel Scheer, a spokesperson for Nature Publishing Group.
Unlike Life, Principles is device agnostic: It can be viewed on any computer or device with a web browser. This makes the book far more accessible to students than Life, since they don't need a $500 iPad to read it (though it is substantially more expensive, at $49). However, by making this choice for access over touch technology, Principles sacrificed the ability to use one's fingertips to interact with the book, which I've found to be one of the most compelling features of a digital textbook. Principles will premiere an iPad edition this fall, according to Scheer, so hopefully that version takes advantage of touch.
Principles boasts similar large, lovely pictures as Life, but bizarrely I can't click to zoom in on them, either on a computer or a touch screen (I try many, many times, thinking perhaps I am doing it wrong. I'm not.). And when I zoom into the text or images using either my computer or iPad, I must then zoom back out to find the link to get to the next page. Zoom, click, zoom, zoom, click. It gets old.
And interactive graphics are unfortunately fewer and further apart than I hoped. Again, biology is the science of life, so I want to be saturated in squirming, pumping, roaring, growing things. Principles unfortunately misses out on numerous digital opportunities. The book opens, for example, with a description of the remarkable color-changing abilities of the cuttlefish and a single picture of a brown cuttlefish on brown sand. It's a cuttlefish for God's sake! Show us this, this or this.
Let me not be too negative. Principles of Biology boasts one excellent feature that demonstrates the power of a digital textbook--links to primary literature. In the genomics chapters, for example, I click straight to the 2001 Nature paper featuring the first sequencing of the human genome. In addition to the full text of the paper, which understandably may be above the reading level of a freshman college student, there is a short background and summary of the article. It's a useful reference for both teachers and students and definitely one of the perks of this textbook, though as far as I can tell the book references only Nature publications (assumingly because it is published by Nature Publishing Group), which potentially leaves out valuable publications in other journals.
Principles also provides links to other web resources, which may be more distracting than useful. I click to a National Geographic video on acid rain, and ten minutes later find myself watching a video on the Appalachian Trail. Where was I in the textbook again? Another link sends me to a Canadian radio station website where I get distracted by something about the X Games before I ever remember why I clicked there in the first place.
I finally close my iPad and shut down my computer after hours of reading the two books and realize there were still a few features missing that I had hoped to see in a digital biology textbook. There was little music or narration for animations or interactive features. A digital textbook should appeal to as many senses as possible, including sound. Maybe someday, through the magic of haptics a textbook will even incorporate elements of touch and let us feel the skin of a platypus or the slime of a biofilm.
There was also minimal video in either book: Life on Earth features some videos of scientists, primarily Wilson, but these are more rare than frequent, and it would be nice for the next generation to see some female and minority scientists. Please, let's not give students the idea that all scientists are old white guys. And within a diverse group of scientists, a textbook publisher could find and record those researchers who are also brilliant public speakers--the Neil deGrasse Tysons of biology--who can excite students in just minutes.
All in all, these first, newborn digital textbooks are fun to read, engaging, and a big step for textbooks in general. I'll admit, I got textbook envy seeing what these books already do that my print textbook will not.
Biology textbooks are born again, but I'm most excited for them to grow up. The ideal digital textbook would be cheap, accessible, include dramatic images on every page, rich interactive features in the right places (with sound!), videos of engaging, diverse scientists, and would feature beautifully on both touch and non-touch screens. Maybe that's too much to ask, but we're imagining the best textbook in the world here. We can dream.
Images: top three: E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation; bottom three: Nature Publishing Group