Besides sugar, Molecules covers other household items like salts, oil, soap, rope, wool, painkillers, and peppers. The illustrations and animations are fun to play with, but after a while it's more satisfying to read about the hows and whys — and the short paragraphs perfectly complement the visuals.
Molecules also looks terrific on the iPhone. As on the iPad, you can switch back and forth between viewing the app as a chronological ebook organized with chapters, and skimming an alphabetized gallery of hundreds of molecules. Exclusive to the iPhone is the ability to adjust the text's font size and change the default white text on black background to black text on a white background — and on the iPhone's smaller screen, these capabilities are a real plus.
The photo illustrations by Nick Mann are stunning, and simulations of how molecules change their look and behavior as their environments change adds depth and encourages exploration beyond the app's scope. Molecules also includes superb simulations that enable you to twist and turn molecules any way you want, and see their behavior at different temperatures. The simulations are built on molecular dynamics code developed over decades at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Molecules (the app) was released simultaneously with a lavish hardcover book: Molecules: The Elements and the Architecture of Everything. The content is almost the same, but of course each format has their pros and cons. The app is a ton of fun, thanks to the ability to view and play with simulations and 3D images. But the images themselves look much better in the book — they are larger, thanks to the book's oversized pages, and the photo resolutions are much higher. So, if you're especially interested in the subject, you may even want to consider picking up both versions.
Few iOS apps are as thoughtfully designed as Molecules, and even fewer combine superb visuals with clear writing that encourages exploration. If you're a parent or teacher looking for a way to engage middle or high school students in learning about the material world, Molecules looks like a pretty good investment. But be careful: you may find yourself spending lots of time with the app yourself — because, unlike those old science textbooks, it's a lot of fun.
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