OSB archive
OSB archive

Numbers, books & apps

Pete Wilton

When he came to write his latest book Oxford University's Marcus du Sautoy decided he wanted to go beyond the printed page.

For The Num8er My5teries he created an 'app' that enables iPhone users to explore the ideas and games within the book and recently wrote for The Guardian on what apps can bring to books.

I asked Marcus about creating apps and how they can help to enrich the reading experience and communicate scientific ideas:

OxSciBlog: Why did you create a gaming app for the Num8er My5teries?
Marcus du Sautoy: The Num8er My5teries is a book which tries to get the reader actively involved in playing with the mathematics. The book grew out of the Christmas Lectures that I did in 2006 for the Royal Institution and Channel Five. The aim of those lectures was to find ways to playfully engage people in doing and understanding science.

I am a great advocate that mathematics is not a spectator sport and the best way to appreciate it is to play. It's one of the reasons that I have also been creating an internet maths school called mangahigh.com which aims to use online computer games to teach the GCSE curriculum.

The publication of the book has come at a time when publishers are exploring the power of apps to supplement and enhance the reading experience. The published book of The Num8er My5teries is jam packed with experiments and games so exploring the use of apps to enhance the playful character of the book seemed an exciting prospect.

OSB: What did you learn from making it? Any advice for other writers looking to do something similar?
MdS: The app we have produced is really just a first experiment both for me as an author and for the publisher. It combines games, videos of me talking about the book and excerpts from the book itself. So it is a very multimedia experience. I think these apps have a huge potential which still hasn't really been tapped.

I think it is important to recognise whether an app is really going to enhance the reading experience. It shouldn't just be a gimmick but should feel like an essential component of the experience. The book I have written stands on its own without any apps which I think is important. If resources permit I have got exciting ideas for pushing the project further.

OSB: What do you think writers can learn from videogames about communicating scientific ideas?
MdS: My experience with the internet maths school mangahigh.com is that if you get the game right you can deliver powerful scientific content together with a fun gaming experience.

I have a 14 year old who spends ages playing games online. He will repeat a level again and again until he has perfected it. Often this is what you need to do when you are learning new scientific ideas. The challenge is to get a good balance between a good gaming experience and learning objectives.

OSB: How do you think social media could help enrich the experience of reading a science book?
MdS: Tapping into the power of social media in doing mass scientific experiments I think is a really fascinating challenge. Galaxy Zoo here in Oxford has really done well in exploiting social media in doing citizen science. They have even developed an app so you can continue classifying galaxies while bored on The Tube!

Marcus du Sautoy is Oxford's Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and a Professor of Mathematics at the Mathematical Institute.