Here is a sumptuous iPad app, a well-organized reference database, an appropriate use of available technological tools. Here is a distillation of fact, a coherent representation of material that is often too overwhelming for our petty mortal minds to comprehend, a layout that informs and is pretty at the same time.
I used to work in software, and often wrestled with presentation issues. Given a particular data set, what is most important about that set? How do we show it off in such a way that we are inviting users to delve more deeply into it? We were okay at it, my company, but the team assembled by Touch Press (The Elements), starting with the witty Marcus Chown and including dozens of engineers, artists, and designers, including Björk, of all people... wow, they really knock it out of the park.
The main menu, or table of contents, depicts the major objects of our solar system, reading from left to right, from the Sun to the Oort Cloud. The satellites of these objects depend from them in orbital order. And most of these objects are spinning.
Each star, planet, moon, major asteroid, etc. is backed up by a lovely, readable, interesting, thoroughly cross-referenced description with highlighted glossary words; a spinnable, zoomable picture; a gallery made up of real images shot by space robots and in some cases astronauts; and live georeferenced data served up by WolframAlpha. What does that mean? That means that when you're learning that Jupiter's moon Ganymede and its sisters played a key role in allowing Earth astronomers to estimate the speed of light, you can touch "Data" and see a live graphic of Ganymede's current sky position relative to your current position.
The Orrery view is particularly nice, especially if you, like me, have trouble visualizing tangential orbits or why we only see one side of the Moon from Earth. It shows the solar system as a large 3-D model, in motion, with orbital trails. Wrap your head around that, says I.
At my house, we have whipped out this pup a dozen times in the past month or so: when astronomy makes the newspaper, after watching the new Star Trek movie, while re-reading John Varley's Gaea trilogy (er, that would be me - those books are not for kids). It will work for a kid writing a report, and it will captivate a kid idly scrolling through the galactic neighborhood.
But since I can't seem to review any piece of software without wanting a little more, here's what I'd like to see in Solar System 2.0: a search function and reason to wear my 3-D glasses. Let's get a sense of how deep those craters really are, boys!