Creating the Solar System (App)

Solar System for iPad is one of the few unqualified successes in the nascent, hybrid area of books-as-apps (or is it enhanced ebooks? New media texts?). Author Marcus Chown graciously and candidly answered a few questions about how such a unique property came about. Chown is cosmology consultant of New Scientist. His books include We Need To Talk About Kelvin, shortlisted for the 2010 Royal Society Book Prize. In the US, the book is published by FSG as The Matchbox That Ate a Forty-Ton Truck.

-Ryan Chapman

Chapman: How did the app come about?

Marcus Chown: My editor at Faber—a UK publisher with strong connection with FSG, incidentally—said: “Would you be interested in doing an iPad app based on one of your popular science books?” It was early 2010. The iPad had yet to be launched but there was “buzz” surrounding Apple’s device. I had never had an illustrated version of one of my books such as Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You (The Quantum Zoo in the US) so was keen to do one. It therefore me took less than ten seconds to say to Henry, as coolly as I could: “Yes, I’m interested.”

A few weeks’ later Henry phoned to say, by Googling, he had found a company called Touchpress, which had expertise in developing iPad apps. Touchpress was founded by Max Whitby, a former producer of Nova/Horizon; his friend from Oxford University days, Stephen Wolfram, multimillionaire creator of the computer language “Mathematica”; and American science writer Theo Gray. Gray had written the text for a stunningly beautiful, glossy book on the chemical elements called, unsurprisingly, The Elements.

When the iPad came along, Whitby and Gray realised immediately they already possessed the raw material for an iPad app that would show their artifacts—zoomable and rotatable—in all their glory. So was born The Elements app, created in a whirlwind of activity to coincide with the launch of the iPad. Apple ran with it as an example of what could be done with an iPad and put it in its TV ads. As of today, it has sold more than 160,000 copies at $15 a time.

The idea now was to create a successor to The Elements: Solar System for iPad. Touchpress would provide the programming and design expertise, and Faber the editorial skills and an author—me. It was not an app based on one of my books—Henry promised that for later—but it was right up my street. I had been an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and am currently cosmology consultant of the English weekly science magazine, New Scientist. It seemed to me like an exciting project.

Whitby brought in Philip Eales of Planetary Visions, a company that specialised in taking raw NASA data and turning it into compelling space images, and Richard Turnnage, a digital design specialist and windsurfer living by a beach in southern England who was going to be the project manager. A project manager on a book! It was a first for me. In addition to these people, there were going to be computer programmers and design companies and sound engineers, both in the US and UK. It was obvious to me that this was going to be very different to any project I had ever been involved with.

Chapman: What was the process like pulling everything together?

Chown: Interesting!

For a while nothing seemed to happen. There were exhausting, day-long meetings at Faber HQ in Bloomsbury, central London, to thrash out the details of what The Solar System would do. One of my first concerns was that I would merely be required to write captions, something I definitely did not want to do. Fortunately, Faber and Touchpress were of one mind. The app was to be story-led—an interactive book, but a book nonetheless.

I was set the task of writing an outline. The idea was to come up with about 150 compelling, fun, informative stories that we could tell about, say, 50 celestial objects—planets and moons, and so on.

I was still concerned about collaborating with a large team of people. As an author, I write an outline, then write the book. There is no interference from anyone else. I have total control. It is all down to me. What if—to mix a few metaphors—everyone and his dog wanted to stick their oar in? How would I cope?

I would soon find out. Richard e-mailed a timetable setting out everyone’s task with the precision of a military operation. I casually ran my finger along the time-line to find “Marcus—writing.” I had been given just nine weeks. Was that possible? I felt queasy in the pit of my stomach.

Actually, after so much talking and planning, it was a relief to get going. I calculated I would have to write 16 to 17 “stories” each week. Some of them I did not know much about. So I would have to research them first. And be authoritative. And entertaining. And write each story into just 275 words! That was the length that would fit onto the screen of the iPad in the chosen font (we did not want people to have to scroll to another page). I would be writing in a straitjacket.

Quickly, a routine developed. On Monday morning, Richard would set up a Skype conference with Philip and I. Over the next three hours, we would go through my outline, selecting the stories I would write that week, and discarding others as not up to scratch. Inevitably, there were compromises. Sometimes I had to do a story I might not have chosen because Philip had good images or videos. Other times, Richard—a non-scientist—would trigger a story by voicing something he did not understand. “How come the Sun has a surface when it’s just a ball of gas?” he asked. A story entitled “Windsurfing on Titan” (a moon of Saturn) was a nod to his seaside hobby.

In addition to the Monday morning story meetings there were meetings to come up with ideas for visuals. I remember a long discussion with Richard and Philip on whether we could make an ice “cube” the shape of Saturn and film it splashing into a gin and tonic (Saturn, you see, is the only planet light enough to float in water). All these meetings ate, worryingly, into my writing time.

Those nine weeks were the hardest I have ever worked. Once I finished a story, I barely had time to cut it down to 275 words and read it through before going on to the next. When I got too boggle-eyed from scribbling with a pencil in a notepad or staring at a computer screen, I stumbled out, blinking, into the daylight. As I walked around London’s Hyde Park, I kept stopping to scribble things that occurred to me in a notebook (I was even waking in the middle of the night to do the same thing). Some of the app was written in a local coffee bar. Day after day, as I drank my coffee and scribbled, a whole office block rose from its foundations across the road.

And, even when it was over, it was not over. There was editing—by Henry, by a US editor. And all the while I was vaguely aware of others in different parts of the world who were working equally hard on other aspects of the app. Then there was a “beta version.” The immediate feeling was of disappointment. Until I realized it was just at first, tentative step along the long developmental road. I gave my feedback, as diplomatically as possible—another thing I learned to do on this collaborative project—and waited.

The excitement every time I went into the Faber offices was palpable. Everyone seemed to know about the app and each milestone in its development. The funniest thing was that Faber and Touchpress made such an odd couple. The high-tech geeky company and the old-fashioned literary publisher no one would have expected to be pushing the envelope on the digital High Frontier.

Then it was finished. It was not perfect. But it was the best I—and everyone else involved—could do in the time available.

Chapman: Are there any features you couldn’t add due to technology or budget limitations? (Something, perhaps, for the iPad 3?)

Lots. Mainly it was limitations of time. From conception until launch last Christmas was only about 6 months, and it took several of those months to thrash out what exactly we were going to do. We had an A list of things we had to do and a B list of things we would like to do if we had time.

I would have liked the app to allow the user to superimpose any two objects, to compare their sizes. The American astronomer, Richard Gott, has just done this brilliantly in his book, Sizing Up the Universe, showing things like the Space Shuttle and International Space Station superimposed on asteroids. It would have been nice to have done that. But, of course, there is always v2!

I would also have liked stirring music to accompany the images. Mind you, I shouldn’t complain. The Icelandic singer, Björk, very kindly wrote some haunting music especially for an animated sequence of images at the beginning of the app!

Chapman: What’s the feedback been like so far from users?

Chown: Really quite overwhelming.

Solar System for iPad is effectively a book—albeit an interactive book—and it is priced like a book at $14. We knew this was a risk since most apps are less than a dollar. But several users have tweeted they would have paid three times as much for it.

Children seem to like it a lot as well. I’ve seen tweets from children, saying “Hey, I’m spinning Jupiter!” and “Wow, I’m flying down a canyon on Mars!” Lots of teachers have said they are using it as a teaching aid.

It has definitely helped that we’ve been iPad “App of the Week” in the US Apple Store, and No.1 in “books” in 37 countries. A couple of week ago, we just won “Best App” at the FutureBook Digital Innovation Awards. And Steve Jobs used our app in his presentation on the iPad 2. All these things have been unexpected and very nice!

Chapman: What other areas of science do you think could benefit from an app like this? Anything on your wishlist?

Chown: That’s a hard one. I’d love to see an app that would allow me to navigate around a human body, sort of like that miniature submarine in Isaac Asimov’s “Fantastic Voyage.” No idea whether that’s possible!

Chapman: Pluto’s demotion: your thoughts.

Chown: It had to happen. Once we discovered Pluto was just a particularly big member of a swarm of maybe 10,000+ icy bodies in the outer Solar System (Kuiper Belt Objects), then we were looking at expanding the number planets from 9 to 10,000+. The alternative was to strip Pluto of its planetary status, reducing the number of planets from 9 to 8. Eris was turning point. It was bigger than Pluto (though there is some argument about that now).

I’m just glad that Clyde Tombaugh, the Kansas farm boy who discovered Pluto in 1930, was not around to see his planet demoted. He died in 1997.

Chapman: Has working on the app changed your approach to writing at all?

Chown: No. I write in various forms—short journalism and longer books, both non-fiction and fiction. All are story-led. And that’s the way it was for the app too. I wrote 100+ stories about objects in the Solar System. It was my vision, things I thought were interesting or fun or quirky. So, you see, it was really on the spectrum between short journalism and the seamless narrative of a book.

One of the best things was having a creative involvement in the design of the app and the images and simulations we chose to illustrate it. So, yes, I was more straitjacketed in what I could do than I would be in writing a book. But the compensation, on the other hand, was being able to contribute in other ways and see my ideas about other aspects of the app realized.

In summary, I did it because it seemed fun and different. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I’m really pleased with the end result. It was great to have the chance to work on such an interesting and unusual project with such a great team of people. We all really felt we were creating something new and fresh.

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