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Science, Technology and Paper Engineering

This video is achingly beautiful. A product of the high-low tech group at the MIT Media Lab, it shows a "pop-up book that sparkles, sings, and moves". You can find out a bit more here. Aside from the simple prettiness of this MIT project, I thought it was significant that the topics they choose to illustrate might be considered those of science and technology books: plants, fishes, clouds, planets, a city-scape, and plants again. On the whole, the effect here is to add sparkles to illustration, but the techniques they've developed could readily be applied to some of the challenges of communicating science inside the pages of a book.

I wonder if this is especially true when it comes to physics, where ideas about the very large or very small challenge communicators to come up with inventive ways to visualise their point. As I've argued for years, this is one of the reasons you get so many instances of semi-fictionalised physics. Not that biology communication is beyond such things, as Nick Sharrat's Chewy, Gooey, Rumble Plop will happily show you, with its pop up digestion system (or, there's place-the-poo stickers from Horrible Science, if you like that sort of thing).

As this Smithsonian blog about pop-up books emphasises, books with moving parts have been used to educate for years, especially in science and medicine. They cite an overlay of several layers of engraved images of body parts and organs as seen in 17th century Descartes, or the inner workings of a steam locomotive in Moderne Technik (1912). I also remember a fantastic meeting of the Society for the History of Chemistry and Alchemy a few years back, where the ever-enthusiastic David Knight along with an archivist from the Royal Society of Chemistry pulled out some fascinating examples of centries-old books with all sorts of additions to the printed page, employed to communicate calculation tables, 3-D diagrams, optical illustions, the effects of dyes on fabrics...

As well as allowing hard to grasp concepts to be explained, I suspect that an allusion to a sense of discovery and finding the hidden in science makes the various bouncing objects and lift-the-flap devices of a lot of paper engineering attractive to children’s science books.

Whatever the reason(s), there's been a fair bit of non-fiction pop-up recently, from grammar to palaeontology. An ecology one even won the Science Book prize, and I have to mention this amazing piece of pop-up big bang, even if it's perhaps less of a kids book (there is a bad physics joke to be made somewhere about steady state not working in pop-up, but I'll refrain). From the US, the Klutz books also provide some particularly interesting examples of hands-on literature; especially the Explorabook, which, marketed as the Exploratorium Science Center in book form, includes mirrors and movable optical illusions within the pages and a magnet hanging off the (spiral bound) spine. In particular, I think this last example shows the ways in which science books poke at the limits of what we might as well call 'traditonal' textual communication, aiming to be emphatically empirical within a book form.

For some reflections on the use of book-bound artistic devices to explain abstract ideas, see also this post on science cartoons. Or for those with access to academic libraries, Jon Turney's (2001) piece on popular science 'More than Storytelling' (in Bryant et al, Science Communication in Theory and Practice) is a must-read.

Thanks to twitter users @rpohancenik and @Enrico_Poli for several of the links used on this post.


Great video! You draw some widespread connections about pop-up books, very interesting. Yes pop-up and other fold-out type devices are often used to depict obvious physical structures (trains, the human body). There is potential to exploit the paper electronics (in the video) in the depiction of non-visual or non-spatial concepts, I think!

Wow. Love it. One of my most favourite books as a kid (10 ish I guess) was a pop up book about the weather, which was actually pretty advanced in terms of scientific content. It has stuck with me to this day. I think maybe something to do with the learning models that say motor skills combined with abstract understanding re-enforce learning? am all inspired now to come up with some physics book ideas to make use of this!

I love the idea of a pop-up weather book! Maybe an 'augmented' one could actually sprinkle some water/ blow wind at you :)