The Elements: A Visual Exploration review

The Elements: A Visual Exploration is a compelling and visually stunning guide to those basic chemical substances, combining informative (and well interlinked) text, cool, spinning VR images, and even an animation set to a theme song.
Photo of The Elements: A Visual Exploration

The Elements: A Visual Exploration (for iPad) ($13.99) is everything one could ask for in an interactive educational app. It’s informative; well linked internally, with readable and compelling descriptions; entertaining (including a special song); visually stunning, replete with spinnable 3D illustrations and figures; and thorough. Any chemistry student, anyone interested in science, and, for that matter, anyone interested in the world we live in, would do well to purchase it. It’s a great example of what an iPad app can be.

Singing the Periodic Table
The Elements wastes no time in drawing the user in, as the first time you open the app, you’re treated to a classic recording of Tom Lehrer’s Elements song, in which, starting with “There’s antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium…” Lehrer sings his way through the periodic table (as it was known in 1959), while a spinning, 3D image of each chemical element flashes on screen as it is sung, to take its appropriate place in the table. The completed table with spinning elements becomes the Home screen, and you can repeat the experience by pressing the Song button at the Home screen’s lower right.

 

The app’s introduction, accessible through another button at the home screen’s lower right, provides a thorough overview of the periodic table, and what distinguishes the different groups of elements. It includes a primer on electron orbitals, probably the most technical part of the app.

Spin the Element
Each element has two pages devoted to it. Depending on whether you’re viewing in landscape or portrait mode, the positioning of the first page’s (informational and graphical) elements are slightly different, but the content is the same. The page is dominated by a cool spinning, 3D virtual reality (VR) depiction of the element, either in its natural form or some product made from it, along with its chemical symbol and atomic number. In the case of the recently discovered elements, named after scientists, that have been synthesized for the most part in tiny quantities, an image of the person it’s named for is shown instead. By touching the illustration and swiping, you can change the speed of the spin, or reverse its direction.

Along the right edge is a bar showing the colors and wavelengths of the element’s emission spectral lines. A box with the element’s name and a button for an audio file pronouncing it contains 3 graphical items: a miniature periodic table showing the element’s position in it; a depiction of its electron shells, and a description plus a spinning, VR depiction of its crystalline structure. (Like the image of the element, the 3D crystal can be stopped or spun at different speeds and in either direction.)

Within another box is some basic information about the element: its atomic radius, atomic weight, density, melting and boiling points (in Fahrenheit and Celsius), electronegativity, and the percentage of the element in the universe, in the Sun, in the Earth’s crust, in the ocean, and in humans. (While 75% of the universe, and 10% of our bodies, are composed of hydrogen, most of the elements comprise only a minuscule percentage of either.)

In the lower right corner, a Wolfram Alpha icon (spinning red crystal) takes you to that search engine’s detailed info on the element’s chemical and physical properties. Next to that icon are navigational buttons: Home, Back, and right and left arrows to go to the preceding element or the current element’s second page.

The second page is best viewed in landscape mode to reveal all of the small illustrations showing different aspects of the element or products made from it. Like each element’s main illustration, the small ones can be spun for a 3D view. But the heart of the page is descriptive text about the element, with links to the pages for any other elements mentioned. The interlinked descriptive pages of the elements, along with the related images, tells the compelling story of these substances, their nature, characteristics, and significance and uses for mankind.

Radioactive Bananas
The descriptions are replete with intriguing tidbits and anecdotes. For instance, on the potassium page, you discover that bananas are radioactive, but not to worry. Bananas are rich in potassium, which although an important nutrient contains trace amounts of a radioactive isotope. Almost anything you eat contains traces of naturally occurring radioactive isotopes, bananas just a bit more so than most. And speaking of radiation, after it was found that hot springs were slightly radioactive but before the dangers of radiation were known, radioactive elements such as radium and thorium were actually added to ingestible products such as tonics and toothpaste, in hopes that they’d mimic a hot spring’s healing properties! The (now) predictable results helped strengthen FDA control of cosmetics and medical devices.

There was a time when tantalum, element 73, was used in light-bulb filaments. Among the technological advances advertised for the Titanic were tantalum-filament bulbs, more reliable than the standard carbon-filament bulbs then in vogue. Following a link in the tantalum page’s text to tungsten, you find that one reason tungsten-filament bulbs are now being phased out is their extreme inefficiency—only about 10% of the electricity they use is converted to visible light; most is wasted in heat and infrared radiation.
Fast-forward to element 106, seaborgium, co-discovered by Glenn Seaborg. He’s the only person to have an element named for him while he was still alive. It probably helped that Seaborgium was one of 10 exotic elements he helped discover.

The app is best for junior high school students or older, although younger kids can enjoy the visual, descriptive, and some of the informational aspects as well.

Information Overload
If the app has a fault, it’s that it’s so information-rich that it can seem overwhelming to more casual users. I’d advise them to treat it cafeteria-style: take what they like and leave the rest. I tested it on an iPad 2, and I’m not sure how it would look on the smaller screen of an iPad Mini. One caveat is to be sure to exit the app when you’re not using it, as it won’t go to sleep when it’s on a page with a spinning illustration and can drain your tablet’s battery.

The Elements: A Visual Exploration is somewhat pricey for an interactive book, but it’s worth every dollar. It’s packed with informative text, cool and relevant 3D images, a well-linked collection of amazing and amusing stories, and even a theme song. It’s an easy pick as an Editors’ Choice as an educational app, and is good enough to earn a rare 5-star rating.

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Specifications
Type Professional
Free Yes

Verdict
The Elements: A Visual Exploration is a compelling and visually stunning guide to these basic chemical substances, combining informative (and well interlinked) text, cool, spinning VR images, and even an animation set to a theme song.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc