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Brian Cox's Wonders of Life Brings the Universe-Tromping Physicist Back to Earth

By Chris Maxcer
Mar 5, 2014 5:00 AM PT

Brian Cox's Wonders of Life Brings the Universe-Tromping Physicist Back to Earth

Brian Cox's Wonders of Life by HarperCollins is an iOS app available in the iTunes App Store for US$4.99.

Wonders of Life

In my mind, there are three elements that bring a great nature documentary to life: first, you need great video footage; second, you need to infuse the content with a sense of time, scope, and wonder; and third, you need a cool narrator.

Brian Cox's Wonders of Life app delivers all three. I stumbled upon the app after Apple highlighted it as an Editor's Choice. This isn't Cox's first appearance in an app, however -- he was the physics professor star of Brian Cox's Wonders of the Universe -- both an award-winning BBC television show and an app.

As for the new Wonders of Life app, Cox brings his thoughtful-yet-enthusiastic brand of British accent to describe more than 30 animals around the world. The app is structured around a 3D tour of Earth, letting you view our small planet from space and then navigate around it, zooming down into habitats to get a closer peek at life as we know it.

'Animals Being Awesome'

The video quality of the app is fantastic, bringing you short clips that dive into the lives of critters, sharing closeups of animals in action paired with narrative candy: Dragonflies, for instance, can pull 2G turns in flight, and scorpions essentially can "hear" the vibration made by the movement of a single grain of sand through their legs.

One user review, in particular, is well worth sharing: "If you have to be told why a well made app full of high def video of animals being awesome is worth the $ [then] this isn't for you," wrote Trent685838.

The Brian Cox's Wonders of Life app is designed to create an experience. While the video action is the main claim to fame -- nearly 2.5 hours of HD video -- the app boasts a contemplative soundtrack that really comes alive when you experience the app with a set of headphones. The soundtrack follows your movements through the app as you zoom into a an area of the world and choose an animal to explore.

In addition to videos and in-depth graphics and info-graphics, the app includes mini articles that you can read for deeper insight. While not exactly hard-core science reading, you can explore life, as well as the idea that life contains something we can't quite exactly yet explain through science -- such as a "soul," which is offered up more for lack of a better term.

The point of the app doesn't seem to be to offer up new research or even in-depth explorations into each animal, but rather to celebrate the secrets of life with moments of inspiring detail.

For instance, the Fowler's Toad has eyes that are structurally similar to human eyes, but they seem to ignore most everything that isn't a long and thin bug that moves horizontally. So, if a mealworm wanders near, the toad will leap into action.

Put another way, the app shows off an experiment that showed a thin rectangle scrap of paper moving horizontally around a toad, which caused the toad to try to eat it. When the paper was moved around the toad in a vertical orientation, however, the toad totally ignored it. Wild. And that's just a toad.

Minor Quibbles

The navigation scheme, complete with soundtrack (and a luscious use of a movable sort of wallpaper in each area of the world), helps create a sense of exploration and wonder that connects animals that are thousands of miles apart. Yet every now and then, I found the spinning and zooming in tedious. Initially, the navigation helps you become engaged with the content, but later seems to slow down your experience -- a Catch-22 of sorts.

If you're interested in taking the Brian Cox's Wonders of Life app plunge, just make sure you're running iOS 7. Even if you are, you might be more interested in watching the five-hour series as full-length videos based on the initial BBC production. At $13.99 for the HD version of the series, it's a viable option. The good news is that either way, you can't go wrong.

TechNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at You can also connect with him on Google+.

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