A New Kind of Science is on the iPad!
September 21, 2010 — Stephen Wolfram
I spent a decade of my life writing A New Kind of Science. Most of that time was devoted to discovering the science in the book. But another part was spent figuring out how to present the science in the best possible way—using words and pictures.
It took a lot of technology to do that presentation. On the software side, the biggest part was using Mathematica to create elaborate algorithmic diagrams—thousands of them. But then came the question of how to actually deliver everything. And back in 2002 when A New Kind of Science was published, the only real possibility was to print a book on paper, using the very best printing technology of the time.
The actual print production process was quite an adventure—going right to the edge of what was possible. But in the end we got many compliments on the object we produced. And from that time to this, that 5.5 lb (2.5 kg) lump of paper has been the definitive representation of my decade-plus of intellectual work.
But today I’m excited to be able to say that there’s something new and in some ways even better: a full version on the iPad.
When the iPad came out in April, I was involved in launching the Touch Press ebook publishing company. We’d had a basic version of A New Kind of Science on the web since 2003. And every time a new ebook reader had come out, I’d look to see if it could support a good version of the book.
The answer was always no. But the iPad was a completely different story.
Still, A New Kind of Science is a huge and complex book, and it was far from obvious that it could be delivered in a good way on the iPad without an unbelievable amount of work. But when we originally produced A New Kind of Science, we did it very carefully, with good clean software engineering. And, now, nearly a decade later, all that effort has paid off wonderfully in letting us build a version of A New Kind of Science for the iPad.
At the beginning I wasn’t sure what the experience of reading A New Kind of Science on an iPad would be like. But when I first actually saw it, there was one particular feature that got me really excited: it was easy to take any picture, and zoom in on it!
I and my assistants spent literally years producing all the diagrams in the book. But to keep the printed version to a manageable size (the 1280 pages of the book were the absolute limit for the binding technology we used), we had to print most of the diagrams quite small. Still, underneath, the algorithms we used generated incredible detail, most of which was invisible, except through the magnifying glass that I kept near my desk.
But now, with the iPad, I didn’t need that magnifying glass any more. I could just immediately use a couple of fingers to zoom in. And I went from page to page, looking at all sorts of diagrams, and seeing all those features that I last saw in fleeting moments more than a decade earlier on the screen of the NeXT computer on which I developed most of the book.
Many aspects of the science in the book rely on observation—on actually looking at systems in the computational universe. And I have no doubt that there are significant discoveries lurking in the details of many pictures in the book—that can now be exposed just by a simple zoom on the iPad.
There are other good things about having A New Kind of Science on the iPad too.
When I wrote A New Kind of Science, I broke it into two parts: the main text, which tells the core story of the science, and the notes, which give all sorts of details, background, and extra material—including some of my favorite technical and historical facts.
In the printed book, the notes had to be formatted quite small—and even so, they took up 300 pages. But they were so popular that we actually had to print a separate, large-format version of them. On the iPad, though, there’s no such issue; the notes are immediately accessible, and all nicely linked to the main text.
I’ve had a curious conundrum about A New Kind of Science for the past 8 years. When I go places, should I take a copy of the book with me or not? It’s often really useful to be able to flip to some picture or another in the book. But even though I have special bags that fit the book alongside my computer, it’s a big nuisance to lug an extra 5.5 lbs (2.5 kg) around.
Well, now that conundrum is resolved. I just have to slip a 1.5 lb (700 g) iPad into my bag—the very same iPad on which I can run the Wolfram|Alpha app, Touch Press books, and lots of other things. And immediately I’m carrying around a full version of A New Kind of Science. That I can refer to, show people, whatever.
I’m excited about the current iPad version of A New Kind of Science. And in the spectrum of current ebook presentations, I think it’s at the very high end. But there’s definitely more to be done. Between the Wolfram Demonstrations Project and Touch Press books, we can see a lot of ways to deliver dynamic computation in book form. And the good news is that with A New Kind of Science we already have the underlying Mathematica programs—all ready to integrate with the new technologies that we’re developing.
Many books are written just for the couple of months that (if they’re lucky) they sit at the front of a bookstore. I wrote A New Kind of Science for the long term. And as delivery technologies evolve, I look forward to seeing the presentation of the book evolve with them. The iPad version that we’re now releasing is a huge step—that I hope will allow a new level of engagement with the book and the science it contains.