Last minute holiday gift advice, Part 2: books!

By Phil Plait | December 24, 2009 10:22 am

OK, this is it. Last day to buy stuff in a panic before Christmas. What to do?

I suggest the bookstore. Who doesn’t like books? And it just so happens I have a few to recommend.


dfts_thumbDeath from the Skies!
You may not know this, but I wrote a book. Nothing says holiday cheer like a trillion ton asteroid barreling down on the Earth at 45,000 kph. And it has a happy ending! The entire Universe dissolves.

This book may not save Christmas, but it might save your life. All your friends need copies. Even strangers. Buy 50.


dontbesuchascientistDon’t Be Such a Scientist
This book, by Randy Olson, is a primer for how scientists and science-types should communicate with the public. As someone whose job it is to do that, I found it readable, funny, and of great use. I chuckled a lot reading it, seeing many people I know being described in its pages. Not specifically, of course, just in general.

At first I was thrown a bit by his comparison of science to Hollywood, but it soon became clear that the lessons Olson learned in Tinseltown really do need to translate to the way we talk about science, at least on TV and in movies. Books are still books, and blogs still blogs, but if we science supporters want to reach millions of people all at once, then we could do a lot worse than heed Olson’s advice when we’re on camera or in front of a microphone.

And if his name is familiar, it’s because he created the mockumentaries "Flock of Dodos" and "Sizzle, A Global Warming Comedy". If you’ve seen those, you know what the book will be like! If you’ve ever been in a conversation with someone and you’ve tried to explain something scientific, this book is a good one for you.


unscientificamericaUnscientific America
Speaking of communicating science to the public, my Hive Overmind co-bloggers Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum wrote Unscientific America as a call to arms for scientists everywhere. This book doesn’t complain about how the public doesn’t get science, it actually has advice — good advice — for how people can take up this charge.

It’s aimed at science lovers, but also at scientists themselves. Chris and Sheril are careful to show just where things have gone wrong: a public with a short attention span, media all too willing to make that worse (and to screw up science every chance they get, through ignorance or greed), antiscience promoters, but also scientists themselves. I see a whole lot of scientists trying to communicate science, but honestly not that many are good at it. That should be self-evident, even to scientists themselves; some are theorists, some experimentalists, some field workers, and so on; the point being we all have our areas of expertise. Not everyone is good in front of a camera, and we need to find the ones who are and groom them.

Chris and Sheril took a lot of heat from scientists about this claim, most of which I found ridiculous and unfair. Scientists need to accept our share of the burden of blame for where we are in America right now — we do own part of it, folks — and we need to shoulder that blame and do something about it. Also, there is a section in the book taking the so-called "New Atheists" to task for fanning the religious flames in America. Although the situation is pretty complicated, I think there is truth to what Chris and Sheril wrote, and I also think that this part of the book should be read by skeptics and atheists very carefully. I won’t go into details here — I’ll save it for a lengthier post sometime — but I think what they’ve written is salient and should be considered by everyone.


atheistsguidexmasAtheist’s Guide to Christmas
Speaking of which, this is a good book for the non-believer in your circle of friends and family. I’ll simply point you to my previous exhortations about it and remind you that all proceeds go to the UK HIV charity Terrence Higgins Trust, a secular group that provides information, advice, and support for HIV positive people in the UK.

[UPDATE: The outspoken ZOMGitsCriss has put up a video plugging Atheist’s Guide, and says very nice things about my essay in the book. Thanks Criss!]


whydoese=mc2Why Does E=mc2
Regular readers know about my friend Brian Cox, a particle physicist with CERN who has dastardly plans to destroy the Earth using the LHC is charming, funny, and an excellent spokesman for science. This book is a wonderful explanation of relativity, one of the best I’ve read. It was inspired by his awesome wife Gia, who asked him the title question one day.

You’ll need to think while reading this; it’s not a breezy beach thriller. But I found it to be a very enjoyable and fascinating primer on, exactly, why energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. It explains things in ways that hadn’t occurred to me before, and I found myself nodding my head as I suddenly understood concepts that had always bugged me (like, why do massless particles travel at the speed of light, and just why is that the ultimate speed limit of the Universe?). It’s a great book, and I highly recommend it.


7thson7th Son
J. C. Hutchins is a science fiction writer and podcaster. He’s among the new group of writers who serialize their fiction and give it away as audiocasts. Once an audience is built up, they can then turn their serialization into book form. I won’t give away the plot of the book, but it’s an engaging read involving some fun science fiction concepts. My only complaint is that he needs to write the sequel yesterday. Too bad it’s not a time travel book!

If you’re curious, Hugo-winning author John Scalzi has a blog post up about J. C. and the book that’ll entice you, too.


There are lots of other books I could recommend, but I’ll cut it off here. Do you have ideas? Post ‘em in the comments! I’m sure we all have books we love and would recommend. Tell us!

MORE ABOUT: books, Christmas

Comments (32)

  1. DemetriusOfPharos

    So, you wrote a book?

  2. Daniel Snyder

    Didn’t some guy write a book called “Bad Astronomy” a number of years ago? ;-)

    Is that still in print?

  3. Every year I review the books I read that year and send out the one I liked best. This year I didnt get much reading done, but I did manage to get in Simon Singhs book. So I sent out 20 copies of Trick or Treatment.

  4. Right! “Trick or Treatment” is great. So is Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Science”. I have a big pile of books I could’ve recommended, but I had to draw the line somewhere. Writing book reviews is hard, and whenever I do I get emails asking me to review more. I love to read (and get free books!) but the pressure to write a positive review is something I prefer to avoid, especially when it comes to books from people I know. Still, there’s no lack of great skeptic and science books to read in front of a cozy fire. :)

  5. Not science, but IMHO a very interesting book about ‘woo’ and politics is : Idiot America : how stupidity became a virtue in the Land of the Free / by Charles P. Pierce. He looks at both the history of people following ‘gut feelings’ or ‘beliefs’ rather than logical and skeptical techniques, and how that leads to ‘dumbing down’.

    J/P=?

  6. Archaeology is a science, too. Hint. And of course, a little fiction now and then is a good thing. Hint hint. And books make terrific new year’s presents, too. Hint hint hint. Or Ground Hog’s day. Hint click name hint.

  7. jcm

    Given the time of year, I think your book, “Death from the Skies”, would a perfect gift.

    “The Demon-Haunted World” by Carl Sagan is also a good book.

  8. While this is a really good selection, I’m going to disagree with your pick of Unscientific America. The authors hash out personal vendettas with atheists and during their promotional tour of the book made a spectacle of trying to sic the NCSE on PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins. No to mention that they hold scientists just as responsible for decline in scientific education as they do the cranks and quacks by quoting anti-intellectual commentary.

    And their big solution? It’s exactly what we try to do in schools today but fail because of short-sighted, uneducated politicos who rule school districts and see kids as product to be moved by meeting state test standards. Funny enough, they’re not mentioned in the book even though they’re one of the biggest contributors to scientific illiteracy today.

    I would much rather see a classic like The Demon Haunted World, or a fascinating pop sci book like How To Build a Dinosaur.

  9. mike burkhart

    why din’t you recomend bad astronomy its a must read I disagree with your two friends I think Bibleical Fundamentists have faned Religous flames more then Athiests have we who are religous have our share of blame .Did they mention that in many movies scientists are often the bad guys? I meen I’ve seen movies were some “mad scientist” kidnaps people ,locks them up in his or hers lab ,and performes hidous experments on them. I think that this gives science a bad name and why many in America are’t interested in science

  10. col

    For the scifi fan I heartily recommend Greg Egan’s latest, Incandescence. He’s one of the true stars in the scifi firmament.

  11. FoxtrotCharlie

    How about your man crush Wil Wheaton? “Memories of the Future” is a pretty good book.

  12. I still don’t understand why that book is called “There’s Probably No God” if it’s supposed to be the atheist’s guide to Christmas. Either there’s definitely no God, or it’s an agnostic’s guide to Christmas.

  13. semantics. There are almost no atheists (I said almost) who claim there is definitely no god. These days agnosticism is quickly meaning that they may or may not beleive in a god and if they do they dont know which one.

  14. Wow thanks a lot Phil ! Never though I would see my name in here, now my Christmas is so much merrier :) Happy festivus!

  15. The Case for Pluto by Alan Boyle. Great book!

  16. Mike

    Thanks for the advice, Phil. The book by Brian Cox seems interesting … I like that kind. My 21 year old college son recently bought a hardcopy version of “Death”. Guess we raised him right. Besides, I wasn’t about to give him mine!

  17. skeet

    I came in here to whine about the suggestion of Unscientific America, but I see Greg Fish stole my thoughts with his magic rocks.

  18. Greg (#8), Sheril and Chris specifically say in the book that scientists need to be active in politics to make sure legislation gets passed that does some good.

  19. Daniel J. Andrews

    Not really Bad Astronomy material, but Richard Dawkins’ book, The Greatest Show on Earth is quite readable for those who are new to biology and evolution. It isn’t a polemic rant, it isn’t as heavy as An Ancestor’s Tale, but it is an informative book even for a biologist such as myself who has been on both sides of the evolution-creation debate. If you were turned off by Dawkins last book, you should give this book a try. He’s reaching out, trying to educate and is not being insulting.

    In places, he sounds like your favourite uncle who wants to tell you a story, a story that you just know will be fascinating and worth listening to. There’s a bit of a charm to it.

    btw, I know I have The First Four Billion Years, and Why Evolution is True showing up under the tree tomorrow. Sorry Phil, there doesn’t appear to be any Death from the Skies under the tree…if I keep bumping the tree looking at presents I may get Death from the Skies when the tree falls on me and punctures me with various icicle ornaments. :)

  20. Benji

    I gave your book to my aunt for christmas, Phil, take it as you’re christmas gift ;)

  21. Wayne Robinson

    I just bought “the 7th Son” on your recommendation, and read the first chapter, which starts with a 4 year old kid assassinating the president. I look forward to reading it (when I finish Stephen King’s “the Dome”, the idea for which I think he got from “the Simpsons’ Movie”). “Death from the Skies”? Dunno. Is it any good?

  22. Gary Ansorge

    7th Son is on the way. Should get here by new years. I love discovering a new author for the new year.

    Thanks, Phil.

    GAry 7

  23. John

    I read “Death…” when it came out. Then on TV there was Dr. Michio Kaku talking about all the astronomical things that could kill us – it was, like, WORD for WORD!!! Thanks for the book recommendations!

  24. Paul D

    I have two of these for Christmas, Your’s and Brian and Jeff’s. Now which one to read first??????

  25. Mike Wagner

    One of the coolest (audio)books ever:
    A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson.

    I listened to that, “In A Sunburned Country”, and “Notes From a Small Island” on a couple of of 25 hour road trips I made last summer and all three books made the heat and dirt just a bit more bearable.

    Can’t recommend any of them enough :)

  26. Phil,

    Late to the party here on books because I’ve been out with the family, but I think that the “Don’t Be Such a Scientist” book is an interesting choice. One of the reasons I also took a degree in journalism in addition to studying astronomy was so I could communicate astronomy –but just as importantly, help other scientists communicate it, too. I see a younger generation of scientists coming up a bit more media savvy, but not always. And, to be fair, it’s not in their job description… that’s why people like me are here, to help them tell the story. How well it works? Well… sometimes it does; sometimes not so much. But, we keep working on it — I work with several observatories in this area… and the attention is well-spent.

    Anyway, good recommendations!

  27. Chris Winter

    Another latecomer here… I’m cautious about recommending something I haven’t read, but I want to suggest two books in that category. Based on who the authors are, I have no doubt they will be good reading.

    Both are newly published, both are about climate change and the perils of trying to communicate with the public about that.

    The first is Storms of My Grandchildren by James Hansen

    The second is Science as a Contact Sport by Stephen Schneider

  28. Sili

    I can see I’ll have to get Cox’ book. With a cat on the front page it can’t be bad.

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