Books Made From Electrons!

By Sean Carroll | February 21, 2012 8:47 am

[Updated to provide a better link for DtU overlord Carl Zimmer.]

The conventional presentation of a book — words and images printed on sheets, bound together in a folio — is a perfected technology. It hasn’t changed much in centuries, and likely will be with us for centuries to come.

But that doesn’t mean that other technologies won’t be nudging their way into the same conceptual space. Everyone knows that the practice of publishing is being dramatically altered by the appearance of ebooks — a very broad designation for book-length content that is meant to be read on an electronic device. At the simplest level, an ebook can simply be a text file displayed by a reading program. But the possibilities are much more flexible, allowing for different kinds of images, video, interactivity with the user, and two-way connections with the outside world. The production and distribution process is also much easier, which opens the door to books that are faster, shorter, longer, and quirkier than the usual set of hardbacks and paperbacks. If I put my mind to it, I could meander through this blog’s archives, pick out a few posts, and have an ebook published by this evening. It would suck — editing and presenting a good collection requires effort — but it would be published.

In the current state of the market, one question is: how do you find good ebooks to read, ones that don’t suck? Into this breach leaps Download The Universe, a new website devoted to reviewing ebooks about science. Not just “science books with electronic editions,” but books that only exist in the e- format. (Apparently we have already passed through the awkward hypenation phase, and gone from “e-book” right to “ebook.”) Because it would be embarrassing not to, we also have a Twitter account at @downloadtheuni.

This brand-new project has been led by our inestimable blog neighbor Carl Zimmer, who has assembled a crack editorial team consisting of some of the world’s leading new-media science journalists and also me. We’ll be contributing regular (one hopes) reviews of ebooks old and new, all with a science focus. Suggestions welcome, of course.

The world is going to change, whether we like it or not. It always feels good to help channel that change in constructive ways.

  • Moshe

    You really think we’re going to have dead-wood books for centuries to come? Seems more likely they’ll join vinyl records and video cassettes, as media most appreciated after it is obsolete (so you no longer have to deal with its various inefficiencies).

  • Phillip Helbig

    A good writer should think about the denotations and connotations of the words he uses. In particular, “suck” as a negative epithet strikes me as rather bizarre, since most who use it actively as a word would in fact be happy to benefit from it passively as an action.

  • kev_s

    Electrons are a bit negative. Perhaps we could have some cheerful science books made of positrons?

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  • Ian Liberman

    I am looking forward to your reviews and of being exposed to excellent ebooks that are not traditionally from publishing house. I have most of my scientific books on my kindle app for the Ipad and enjoy reading them this way, with the ability to connect my reading material to the internet and see illustrations in HD. I want to know what ebooks are out there; ones that do not belong to the conventional publishing corporations. I am a big fan of Carl Zimmer also and will be looking for his input in the new project.

  • Sili

    Well, given how CDs have turned out to deteriorate within a decade or two, we really have a problem if we want to store knowledge for any appreciable length of time.

    So far books seem to be the best solution in terms of price, weight and durability.

  • Pingback: Books Made From Electrons! | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine | Books Palace()

  • Tony Cusano


  • Yoav Golan

    Books are a perfected technology only in the sense that we are constantly perfecting them. With ebooks, that is. Think about it: Books are clunky, heavy, tear easily, and difficult to transport. They are not searchable or scannable. They age, fade, and deteriorate. Plus they are expensive and bad for the environment.

    Good riddance.

  • David Park

    I would like to bring to your attention another technology for scientific and technical communication that is already available and that offers orders of magnitude improvements over paper books, pdf files or ebooks.

    This is writing full fledged Applications in Mathematica and Wolfam Workbench. (Readers would need only Mathematica.) These Applications could be for different purposes such as a research project or university courseware, but let’s talk about a technical book.

    The Application (what replaces the book) has the following advantages.
    1) It provides the user (more than just a reader) with active usable routines to actually put into practice the material in a book.
    2) It has dynamic capabilities (animations and dynamic displays) and the ability to format material in a far better manner than other mediums. Long derivations and proofs can be presented in a compact space and optimally organized manner.
    3) The book and ancillary material contain a great deal of self-proofing (but not perfect). Things just won’t evaluate properly with most typos and errors.

    A book Application would usually consist of 1) a book in notebook form, 2) Mathematica packages that implement routines associated with the material, 3) complete documentation for the routines with examples (which also test the routines), 4) tutorials on various aspects of using the routines, 5) extended examples and notebooks illustrating sophisticated use of the material.

    Another advantage of this medium is that the book can concentrate on the more sophisticated and more abstract material, and perhaps stand on its own if necessary, while the other material can provide many examples and practical applications, which might clutter and extend the book.

    Being a new medium there is very much to learn on how to best use it. One thing I am certain about is that this can not only provide two-way communication between author and readers but serve as a communication hub between groups of specialized readers.

    I am currently working on implementing an interface for an Application on Grassmann algebra done by John Browne. John has excellent mathematics and has extended the subject quite far (to Clifford algebra, generalized Grassmann products, hypercomplex algebras, quaternions and octonions).

    If there are physicists who have a serious interest in this topic, have Mathematica, and would like to see how this medium can work, we would be glad to provide a copy for evaluation and comment. You could contact me at:

    David Park

  • Pantz

    Wait, is there a website dedicated to reviewing traditional science books too? ’cause that’s what I need :)

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  • RayS

    Splendid idea. Now, if we could find someone to do the same for non-science books….

  • Oscar

    With a mouse that’s hypersensitive to give motions and constantly jumps around the screen, particularly when one types, this is just unacceptable.

  • leo

    LOL your blogs are cool… do some blogs about this too

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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