This review also appears on Download the Universe, a group blog reviewing the best (and worst, and just "meh") in science-related ebooks and apps.
When I go to science museums, I like to press the buttons. I'm convinced this is a special joy that you just do not grow out of. Hit the button. See something cool happen. Feel the little reward centers of your brain dance the watusi.
But, as a curmudgeonly grown-up, I also often feel like there is something missing from this experience. There have definitely been times when I've had my button-pushing fun and gotten a few yards away from the exhibit before I've had to stop and think, "Wait, did I just learn anything?"
Science museums are chaotic. They're loud. They're usually full of small children. Your brain is pulled in multiple directions by sights, sounds, and the knowledge that there are about 15 people behind you, all waiting for their turn to press the button, too. In fact, research has shown that adults often avoid science museums (and assume those places aren't "for them") precisely because of those factors. Sound Uncovered is an interactive ebook published by The Exploratorium, the granddaddy of modern science museums. Really more of an app, it's a series of 12 modules that allow you to play with auditory illusions and unfamiliar sounds as you learn about how the human brain interprets what it hears, and how those ear-brain interactions are used for everything from selling cars to making music.
It's part of a series that also includes Color Uncovered. The app is basically a portable Exploratorium. It would be very simple to convert everything in here (from games to text) into a meatspace exhibit. And that's a good thing. There are some big benefits to having access to your own, private museum.
A) You get to press the buttons as many times as you want.
B) You actually have the time and the headspace necessary to explore the text and learn the things the button-pressing is supposed to teach you.
For instance, one module features a psuedo vintage tape deck that allows you to record yourself speaking, and then play the recording both normally, and in reverse. You're particularly encouraged to try recording palindromes—words and phrases that are spelled the same backwards and forwards. You might think that palindromes would also sound the same backwards and forwards, but you'd be wrong. The phrase "too bad I hid a boot", for instance, sounds more like garbled Japanese when it's played backwards.
Having this all to yourself on an iPad means that you can spend a lot of time being silly (examples of recordings made by this reviewer include palindromes in different accents, "Hail Satan", and multiple swear words) while easily jumping back and forth between the interactive diversion and the explanations of how it works and how it fits into modern society. I can even imagine kids playing with the toy part of this for a while before finally stumbling upon the embedded text and having their games suddenly illuminated with meaning. That's pretty cool. In a museum setting, I've watched plenty of kids muck around with the button pressing and then run off before they ever have a chance to learn that phonemes are distinct units of sound or that backward speech doesn't just reverse the order of the phonemes, but reverses the phonemes themselves. Sound doesn't have palindromes.
The other benefit here is that Sound Uncovered eliminates the need for the role of Boring Adult — the person charged with the futile task of reading the explanatory text out loud to a gaggle of button-pressing children who really do not care about that right now. In doing so, it frees adults to actually have fun and learn something, too. If you don't have to be the education enforcer, and can trust that your kids will discover the explanations as they play with the app over time, then you're able to actually engage in play yourself —both with your kids and without them. The portable museum is a place for kids, and it's a place for adults, too.
That said, I think an adult on their own would probably burn through this pretty quickly. I got most of what I'm going to get out of it on a three-hour plane flight. But it's also free, so it's not like you're out a lot of money for a small amount of information. In general, I'd say Sound Uncovered is a good example of how the digital format can be used to improve science communication in ways that aren't easily possible in the real world.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.