Monday 12 March 2012

iPalaeontology — the iPad as a research tool.

As an aspiring researcher, I have found that my iPad has become an invaluable piece of kit in my paleontological toolset, enabling me to gather, organise and review information as well as enable me to write, draw and disseminate my own work from one mobile platform. Following on from my post on the art apps on my iPad, here I have a look at some of the apps I use to complement other research tools, plus one or other apps that have found a home on my iPad. I have taken my iPad on planes for work and entertainment (it's currently loaded with all episodes of the BBC's Live From Dinosaur Island), carried it around meetings and flung it into my rucksack and headed out into the field with it.

One of the reasons I purchased an iPad was so I could have access to all the papers I wanted to read, and have on hand at all times. The application iBooks (free) enables you to organise and store PDFs and books purchased from the iTunes Store, and is very useful. Instead of printing papers out and having reams of paper lying about everything is on one place and readily accessible. At the SVP meeting in Las Vegas it was possible to carry around the abstracts book and other documents (such as maps etc) on the iPad, and they are of course searchable which is very useful. Open a pdf online in Safari, and you can save it to iBooks and file as you wish in custom folders.

Kindle books are also available on the iPad and you simply download a Kindle reader and off you go; I downloaded Brian Switek's excellent book Written in Stone for Kindle and is a great way to have the book handy at all time. Combined with iBooks, both these apps make for a powerful library facility on your iPad. Out of copyright publications are often free and many texts which would be difficult to find are more readily available, for instance I have a copy of Gideon Mantell's journals which I have never seen available in print. Of course for an old bibliophile like myself the very nature of books mean they are irreplaceable and electronic readers will never take their place, but there is a lot to be said for the convenience of the iPad.

I'm typing this post in Apple's own word procession app, Pages (£6.99). This is a very capable word-processor and although it's not packed with features it's more than adequate for my writing needs. You could quite easily create some relatively sophisticated documents with Pages as you can import images and format the text easily, and it supports multi-page documents. I have used it for taking notes in lectures and it works a treat.

One problem with Pages as a note-taking app is the inability to draw within a document. To scribble down charts and diagrams I use a notebook app called Penultimate (This cost me 69p in an online sale). This wonderful little program enables users to create individual notebooks, individual pages of which can be saved out and imported into other apps, or emailed to a desktop. With a stylus Penultimate really comes into its own and sketching is very quick and simple. During a lecture it's possible to switch between the two apps with ease, and is a lot less clumsy than it sounds.

Despite the apparent world domination of PowerPoint, arguably the worst application ever to (dis)grace the hard drives of the world's computers, Apple's presentation building program Keynote (£6.99) is vastly superior. With genuinely useful, well-designed templates and a simple workflow it produces far superior results to it's lumbering, slug-like rival and movies actually work with it too. It is certainly an improvement on Microsoft's maddening monstrosity.

Other apps are available according to your interests. As I become more interested in 3D data gathering of fossils and ichnofossils, I find myself using 3D viewer MeshLab (free) as it’s a great tool for importing .obj or .ply files and examining the models; especially usefully for photogrammetrists is the ability to alter the lighting angle, and this reveals all sort of details previously unseen. There are desktop versions available too, and these are fuller featured.

Dropbox (free up to 2.5gb) is massively useful for transferring files. You can invite people to a public folder to view files, but fellow Dropbox users can also be invited to share folders, which makes collaborations much easier.

Similar is iCloud, Apples own cloud computing service, free to Apple users. This excellent service allows you to share pictures, files and music between all your Apple devices. For instance, I take a picture on my iPhone and within an hour it’s also available on my iPad. However, it's not quite as useful as Dropbox as you can't share folders with third parties.

Other apps are equally useful and entertaining. As a palaeontologist it’s pretty difficult to resist anything to do with animal skulls, and Skulls (£10.99) is no exception. It is an app featuring a collection of 300-plus animal skulls (plus the odd ornament or whatnot), all in high definition, with 360 degree rotation. You may never have the urge to study a Warty Frogfish skull, but you’ll be stunned by it’s beauty. The Gila Monster? Wow.

iGeology (free) has detailed drift and solid maps of UK geology, and is fully zoomable. If you have an iPhone it also works with the GPS on your phone. Exoplanet (free) features information on every extrasolar planet discovered, and is updated every time a new one if found, which is more often than I ever imagined. Fractal Plus (free) lets you explore Mandelbrot and Julia Set fractals down to the nth degree, and shows off the iPads power in spectacular fashion. As for the games . . .

Finally, iTunes U offers university courses through your iPad. This app is a game-changer for educators and students alike, making university-quality courses online, many of them totally free in a wide range of subjects. Also, materials of interest are included free of charge too. Darwin’s Library? It’s here. Astronomy, statistics, chemistry . . . the list goes on. From the OU to Stanford, many of the world’s leading education institutions have course on offer here.

One last thing. It’s worth having a look at Apple’s app store frequently not just for new apps, but because they frequently have unadvertised sales and single-app discounts, and you might just pick up a bargain.


  1. Good list, which reassuringly overlaps largely with my own.

    I've been using an iPad since about mid-2010. Initially I mostly used GoodReader (great reading app, fast and syncs with Dropbox/iCloud/Google Docs etc.). However, my most treasured app has for some time been Sente ( It's a bibliography manager for Mac and iPad. References (with PDFs attached) on the Mac are automatically synched with the iPad, so I can always have my complete reference library with me. I share the iPad with my wife, who uses Bookends (, another great bibliographal combo that roughly does the same thing but without the cloud approach of Sente (it syncs way faster, though). Mendeley is free, but it is too complicated for my taste.

    Furthermore, I'd like to add an endorsal of Evernote, which I use about every day for note-taking, photographs etc. The only snag here is that Evernote is rather closed, so it takes some time to get your data transferred to anything else (not counting copy&paste). However, there are some tools to transfer to Springpad, which is a good alternative and a bit more open (although not as good, truth be told).

    Regarding the iPad as a device for paleontologists, it may be worth pointing out that there are a few really rugged cases out there that will protect your iPad against all the dust, mud and crud. The Otterbox cases are well-known, but I went with the Griffin Survivor case because it doesn't have the silly hole Otterbox put in to show off the Apple logo.

    I'm considering swapping to the new iPad, but mainly because of the improved camera. I use the camera a LOT, particularly in archives and on sites. The present one is barely functional, but a 5MP one would suit me very well.

  2. Thanks Ilja, I'll be checking out these apps and the cases too. My brand-new iPhone fell out of my pocket whilst I was bending over to look at some tracks, thankfully no harm done but it spurred me on to go and buy a rugged case for it (Speck).