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Born-Again Textbooks

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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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 app 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

Megan Scudellari About the Author: Megan Scudellari is a freelance science journalist based in Durham, North Carolina, specializing in the life sciences. She is a correspondent for The Scientist magazine and has contributed to Technology Review, Nature Medicine, Pacific Standard and more. She is currently writing her first textbook, a college biology text. Follow on Twitter @Scudellari.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 8 Comments

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  1. 1. AlexACIT 9:29 am 01/31/2013

    A note for readers: while iBooks works on the iPhone and iPod Touch, you can only buy and read Life on Earth on the iPad.

    (You can download it on iTunes on your computer, and try to transfer it to your iPhone, but it still won’t work.)

    Link to this
  2. 2. curmudgeon 11:50 am 01/31/2013

    So the ‘best textbook in the world’ is only available to the minority of its citizens who have bought the Apple hype and elected to purchase a massively overpriced gadget? So the real answer to “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?” would be cold, hard cash then!

    Link to this
  3. 3. TTLG 1:35 pm 01/31/2013

    Old-fashioned textbooks are just another form of lecturing, which has been pretty conclusively shown to be an ineffective way of teaching. It seems to me that something that is mostly interactive graphics and short movie clips would be much better. HTML format would certainly be a good way to go, except that it would be harder to make money off of it without advertising, which seems to be counter to the idea of education.

    Link to this
  4. 4. cccampbell38 2:47 pm 02/1/2013

    Keep in mind that these “books” are just the very beginning of what is coming in the way that information is imparted in education. Picture the Wright brother’s flyer in 1903 alongside an F-18 Super Hornet or a Boeing 787 Dreamliner (once they get the bugs worked out of that one).

    Wilson’s and NPG’s “books” are the equivalent of that old flyer, except the pace of development and change will be much more rapid. We will not recognize education and the way that it is done 25 years from now.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Jerzy v. 3.0. 9:30 am 02/2/2013

    I agree with @2 that any textbook only tied to overpriced and restrictive gadget is not a good way to educate. This leads to a question: why should SciAm promote Apple?

    More general: visual and interactive learning is around for decades. However, any serious student finds that to succeed, he/she absolutely needs also to learn concentration sufficient to use bare text plus skill of finding and checking information oneself. And interactive and visual textbooks are more difficult to update than simple text + images. A killer in modern fast-changing science.

    So I am afraid, classical textbook format is here to stay.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Shmick 7:10 am 02/3/2013

    I think there is a bit too much cynicism here. I agree that the iPad is overpriced but the fact remains it is the clear market leader. My girlfriend just bought one despite my pointing out that she can get more bang for her buck with another brand. Marketing matters.

    Also if the price of the book is only $1.99 I hardly think we can impugn Wilson for “grabbing at the cash”. He was probably responding to the above point that this is the most common device, lets make the best interactive experience we can.

    Kudos to these first efforts. I’m sure more and better are to come.

    Link to this
  7. 7. DaniEder 5:40 pm 02/4/2013

    The author says “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.”

    This is incorrect. Wikibooks has had biology books online since at least 2004 (, and they are zero cost. Admittedly, as volunteer efforts, their quality varies.

    The CK-12 Foundation has had complete Biology texts for a few years now: Those are also free.

    As author of another Wikibook in progress ( ) I will note a few more things not mentioned in the article you can do with an electronic format that is difficult with paper:

    * Besides web links, I am including a 2.5 GB resource library, which would be too voluminous to include in a printed book.

    * I also have started a software collection, which at present only has one spreadsheet, but with the intent to add more as the book develops.

    * Since doing is part of learning, I am including “practice projects” which are real projects readers can work on, individually or in groups, with their results fed back into the book.

    These features are in addition to the lower cost, faster updating, and ability to easily add collaborators that an electronic format makes possible.

    Link to this
  8. 8. bucketofsquid 4:56 pm 02/7/2013

    If we can figure out how to finance it, my son and I are toying with the idea of an interactive diagram of biology. It would have multiple navigation paths and not be limited to the usual “tree” form of listing kingdom, phylum, genus, species, etc. Those may not be in the right order, I’m the cyber-geek and he is the chemistry/biology student.

    There would be the “tree” and also a map and a way of navigating scientific taxonomy and also common language with layers of complexity. People could have as high or low a level of information as they wanted. It would also cover synonyms and homonyms for the common names of things so puma, mountain lion, cougar, etc would lead to the same critter but would also list plants, animals or any other living thing with the words of the common language name they share. For example zebra would also list zebra muscle. Puma would not however, bring up a shoe brand or cougar bring up older women seeking younger men.

    Each critter would list range, diet, characteristics, etymology of scientific and common names, uses, risks to and from the creature as well as mythology about the creature. There would also be as many interactive images as possible as well as video. Content would ideally be added by either experts or students in the related fields of expertise. Each creature that makes sounds would have a recording of that sound.

    Obviously this would be a monumental task and would require substantial computer resources as well as huge amounts of data entry time and media recording and uploading.

    My personal opinion is that this would be so useful that eventually someone is going to do it. The only real question is who and when. Anyone with the money should feel free to take the idea and run with it. We aren’t likely to be able to finance it anytime soon.

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