The Elements: A Coffee Table Book Reinvented for iPad

If you’re considering getting an iPad, or have been looking for amazing and unique apps for an iPad you already own, chances are you’ve heard of The Elements. This app has been featured in Apple’s demos in addition to earning constant reviews ever since the iPad was released. Most of us struggled to remember the periodic table when in high school chemistry, so why would you want to get a new version of it for your shiny new gadget?

The Elements is an interactive eBook written by Theodare Gray, an author you may know from the Popular Science column “Gray Matter.” He and his team have photographed samples of each element they could and produced a coffee table book filled with high quality imagery and descriptions of each one.

They then redesigned the book for the iPad, bringing the periodic table into the 21st century. Most eBooks are simply a digital copy of the same text you could have bought in dead tree format, so is The Elements any different?

Getting Started

The first two things that may surprise you about The Elements are the price and the download size. At $13.99 and 1.8 Gb, it’s more expensive and takes much longer to download than most apps. It’s priced more like a real coffee table book, though, and isn’t significantly higher than many top of the line eBooks, so considering all the extra content it includes the price is not that unreasonable.

And let me assure you, it is definitely packed with extra content. Every image of each element in the periodic table is shown in full 3D: you can spin around and view them from any angle.

You’ll get a quick preview of the included imagery when you first run the app, as the elements fly by during the pre-run song, “The Elements”. Mathematician and singer Tom Lehrer sings the names of each element as they’re introduced, animated, and then minimized to their home on the periodic table.

Preview each of the elements with "The Elements" song by Tom Lehrer

The “front cover” of The Elements is an animated picture version of the real periodic table. Each small element is spinning inside its own square. Just tap an element to explore more about it, or press the Contents button to explore the elements by name in alphabetic order.

Searching alphabetically might be an easier way to find the element you’d like to see more about, if you’re not someone who has the periodic table memorized!

The Periodic Table ... filled with spinning examples of each discovered element

Alternatively, just enter the name of the element you’re looking for in the search box at the top. As you type, the elements that are ruled out fade and stop spinning, leaving you with the elements that include the word you searched for in their description.

For example, here you see Nitrogen still listed even though we entered carbon since the article about nitrogen mentions carbon.

Search through the book to see any elements with that word in their descriptions

Before you dig too deep, you can learn more about what makes the periodic table special and why it’s setup like it is from the About section. You’ll discover more about what makes each element different, how they’re classified, and how the table is organized. This section also includes more info about The Elements book so you’ll get the most from each virtual page.

Learn about the science behind the Periodic Table and how to get the most out of The Elements

Exploring the Elements

Back at the main periodic table screen, you can start exploring the elements by tapping their respective squares. This opens the first page about the element, which includes a huge moving image of the element, its atomic number, and a vast amount of additional information on the right sidebar.

Among other info, you’ll be able to quickly see the element’s atomic weight, melting point, and electron shells, along with the percent found on earth, in the oceans, and in humans!

Each Element has a page with quick scientific facts

Tap the sidebar info to get more information about that aspect of the element from WolframAlpha when you’re online. This is the only part of the app that requires an active internet connection.

If you’re trying to study more about an element, or compare the properties of multiple elements, you can type additional queries in the WolframAlpha popup search box.

If you're online, discover more with WolframAlpha integration

Best of all is each element’s second page. Press the right arrow button on the bottom of the first element screen to explore more detail about the element. You’ll get a description of the element and how it’s used, as well as 3D spinning images of the element found in nature and standard products used today.

Swipe over an image to start it spinning so you can see it from all sides. If the text mentions another element, you can tap its name to jump to the info about it.

You can quickly come back to your previous location with the back button on the bottom.

Tap Next to read more about the element and see its uses

Want to see an element closer? Double-tap any image in the book to open it in a full-screen preview where you can spin it at closer to full size. If you have 3D glasses or can view with free-viewing, then tap the appropriate button on the bottom and the image will separate into left and right images for 3D viewing!

Even without 3D view, though, the images are highly detailed, and my only complaint is that you can’t zoom in and see them closer.

See each of the element images in stunning 3D with or without glasses, or just spin it around by itself.

Design and Features

Overall, The Elements is designed very nicely, and feels more like a museum display than an eBook. I was impressed at how many 3D images they included, and how smoothly all the animations played back – even when many were running at once, such as on the front screen.

There have been many reports of The Elements crashing in its reviews on the App Store, but it didn’t crash at all in my tests with fairly heavy usage, and multitasking between email and a couple of other apps. It seems like their updates have fixed any initial problems that were reported for the most part.

However, it does fall short in some ways. As much as The Elements is a showcase of the in-depth educational opportunities that a large multitouch device can offer, it really doesn’t take advantage of any multitouch features.

I was surprised to find that you can’t just swipe to go to the next page; you have to press the next or back buttons on the bottom just like you might on a PC app. Plus, you can’t zoom in on the images, though being able to spin them around is nice. The text is also static; you can’t change the font size or select text to copy.

Is The Elements Worth the Price?

Overall, though, I still think The Elements is an amazing experience that can definitely help you learn more about the elements on (and in) our planet. I showed it to my younger brother who is in 7th grade, he started exploring elements he’d never heard about and found it very informative.

It’s almost like a full museum exhibit in your hands, and for that, the price doesn’t seem nearly as bad. There’s a lot of potential with this format of book, and I hope to see Touch Press and other developers take this format further over time and create even more immersive learning experiences on iPad!


The Elements is an interactive eBook by Theodore Gray for iPad and iPhone 4 that brings the periodic table to life. It's one of the best examples of how eBooks can go beyond traditional paper books, and is both fun and educational at the same time.