Science geek holiday gifts: books!

By Phil Plait | December 13, 2010 10:29 am

So you read this blog, which means you’re a hopeless geek. And chances are, you have other such folks in your life too (I have too many to count*). And what geek doesn’t want more books? One who’s dead, that’s who, and assuming your geek friends aren’t zombies, then they’re both alive and want books. So here are a few that might keep them enthralled over winter’s chill grasp.

scienceofbsgThe Science of Battlestar Galactica by Patrick di Justo and Kevin Grazier

BSG is one of the very few scifi shows that made the crossover into mainstream, and for good reason: tough, gritty, and with a devotion to getting as much of the science right as possible. That last bit was in no small part due to my friend Kevin Grazier who was the science advisor on the show, and is the co-author of this book. I was expecting it to be pretty good, but it still exceeded my expectations. It was a very enjoyable read, briskly taking on cutting-edge scientific ideas as explored in BSG. Artificial Intelligence (duh), faster-than-light travel, radiation, weaponry, ships, planetary science — it’s a complete and nerdtastic dissection of all the science you ever saw in the show. Before the book came out, Kevin and I would debate various science topics in the show (he always had some comeback to my critiques) and I had a lot of fun finding those same arguments in the book. If you’re a BSG fan, then yeah, you want this book.

asqm_kakaliosThe Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics by James Kakalios

James is the author of The Physics of Superheroes and was the science advisor for the Watchmen movie, so you know we’re talking serious dork here. He’s also a really good writer; this new book on quantum mechanics was a lot of fun to read. He ties together comic book and pulp story predictions of the future with the way things really turned out, stressing that the energy revolution predicted (that would give us rockets to other stars and flying cars) turned out to be an information revolution fanned by advances in QM. And this weirdest of all sciences is made understandable by James; I’ve always wondered how glow-in-the-dark materials work, why lasers hardly need any energy source given how bright and strong they are, and just what makes semi-conductors so versatile. It’s all there. Also? Coolest cover for a science book ever.

sillyrhymes_beaulieuSilly Rhymes for Belligerent Children by Trace Beaulieu and Len Peralta

Of course you know Trace Beaulieu from Mystery Science Theater 3000 (and if you don’t, I have no idea why you’re even reading my blog), and Len Peralta from his marvelous Geek-A-Week drawings and interviews. Put them together, and you get this terrific book for kids (and face it, twisted grown ups) that is an unholy union between Edward Gorey, Dr. Seuss, and B. Kliban. I sat with my teenage daughter and we laughed all the way through this wonderful book. It’s a perfect blend of weird and funny; as the tag line calls it, "A yucky big book of rainy day fun for belligerent children & odd adults with nothing better to do."

The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas (paperback, various authors)

This is a fun, light-hearted book about celebrating the holidays with essays from a lot of well-known writers like Richard Dawkins, Brian Cox, Ben Goldacre, and (ahem!) me. It also has essays from a few folks you might not expect, like Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon and comedian Robin Ince. The paperback version just came out, and is pretty much the same as the hardcover that came out last year, so you can read what I wrote about it then. Also, an American version with some different essays (including Boobquake inventor Jennifer McCreight) is now available too!

calculusdiariesThe Calculus Diaries by Jennifer Ouellette

How many math books are fun to read? Well, at least one! My pal Jennifer is a great writer, and this book makes calculus something it’s probably never been: easy to understand and completely approachable. She uses great examples like zombie apocalypses (seriously) and gambling in Vegas to show not only how calculus works, but why it’s so important. Read my longer review if you remain unconvinced, but trust me: this book would make a great gift for the budding mathematician in your life.

loxton_evolutionEvolution by Daniel Loxton

Know a kid interested in science? Then this book makes a great holiday gift! Lavishly illustrated by the author, it explains the basics of evolution in a solid manner, giving every beginning scientist the knowledge they’ll need to understand this central theory of biology. If you want more info, I wrote a more lengthy review when it came out earlier this year.

how_i_killed_plutoHow I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown

Mike is the astronomer who discovered Eris, an ice ball out past Neptune that threw our understanding of the solar system into disarray. Well, more accurately, it messed up the public understanding of it: Mike showed once and for all that Pluto was not the King of the trans-Neptunian realm, but at best shared its status with lots of other little iceballs. And in fact, his discovery helped prompt the famous IAU ruling that Pluto should no longer be considered a major planet. His book is a narrative of those interesting years, told not so much as a scientific story than as a personal one, coinciding with his gettign married and having a daughter. It’s actually a lovely book that describes all that was going on wonderfully and warmly, and also helped me crystallize my own feelings on Pluto and what it means to be a planet.

The Rookie & The Starter by Scott Sigler

Sigler is a science-based horror writer who redefined the publishing industry years ago when his first book was rejected by one publisher after another, so he decided to do it himself online. He got such a huge audience that the publishers noticed, and now he’s a New York Times bestselling author! He’s started a new series about the Galactic Football League, where wars are no longer fought in space, but on the gridiron… and it’s not uncommon for a quarterback to be chased down field by a team of slavering carnivorous aliens. The Rookie is the first book in the series, and The Starter the second. If you like aliens and football then I suspect you’re unlikely to find a better combination than this. And if you go to Scott’s site to order the books he has a $7 discount on the two books if you use the code EVO or mur (or see a list of codes here to support your favorite podcaster).

dfts_thumbDeath from the Skies! by Phil Plait

This book hardly needs an introduction, since it’s been heralded as the single greatest astronomy book ever written. OK, so maybe I’m the one who heralded it thusly, but still. It’s a pretty good book. And it’s available in hardcover and paperback, too. C’mon, what better way to escape your family on the holidays than to read about the Earth getting torn apart, vaporized, frozen, broiled, and slammed by cosmic radiation over and over again?

Of course, there are lots more books appropriate for the geek holiday season. Got ideas? Leave ’em in the comments!

* … and if you read that line and immediately thought, "That’s technically impossible because the integers go on forever and there are a finite number of people on Earth," then congrats: read the first line of the blog again.

MORE ABOUT: books, Christmas, holiday

Comments (39)

  1. Lucas

    One thing that bothered me in BSG was how jumping to FTL didn’t massively damage nearby matter from the space-time warping, except for the one time it made for a *thrilling tension-filled plot-point(TM)!!!*. Even after that event occurred, when ships made the jump inside other ships, nothing bad happened.

    Consistency is all I ask from my science!

    As a recommendation, I’m plowing through Richard Dawkins’s The Greatest Show On Earth right now. It’s immensely readable and touches on many aspects of biology, showing all the evidence for evolution, AND it has pretty pictures!

  2. Christoph K

    Anything from Carl Sagan.

  3. Nuclear Chris

    Tip of my hat to you phil, and a happy saturnalia
    James Kakalios is oodles of awesomeness- may I suggest Theo Gray’s Mad Science (51 experiments you can do at home but probably shouldn’t)
    With select experiments such as- Cooking at 77 Kelvin, Snicker bar rocket fuel, Hillbilly hottub, Atoms and eve.
    Theo also wrote a rather informative compilation titled. The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe.

    Either would surely be on the top of my wishlist and/or bookshelf

  4. The BSG finalle actually had a few astronomy mistakes and to be honest the explanation for everything was utterly disappointing; since I already read the Death from the Skies a few times over, Mike is a clear winner here for me.

  5. MoonShark

    Hm, some of these sound awfully good. Thanks doc!

  6. Speaking of Battlestar Galactica (which I consider one of the best sci-fi TV programs EVER) …

    It’s too bad that the BSG “prequel,” Caprica, end up fizzling out as it did, because it started off VERY promisingly. Months before the series debuted, the pilot was available on DVD, and I was very impressed by it, if only because it was a provocative and believable portrayal of a civilization on the cusp of a “technological singularity.”

    This is NOT to say that I necessarily BELIEVE in such a singularity as people like Ray Kurzweil and Charles Stross have described it. But I do think its an interesting concept, even moreso as we learn how to create better interfaces between the human nervous system and digital technology. After all, people are already learning how to control their prosthetic limbs just by thinking JUST SO …

  7. The diagram of the solar system on How I Killed Pluto is totally wrong. The scale’s way off. I’m afraid I cannot support such rank distortion of science. [/snark]

    Nice list o’ books. Except maybe that last one.

  8. Madame Furie

    You sold me on the poetry. I just ordered “Silly Rhymes for Belligerent Children” for my grandson. Sure he’s only 1, but if it performs as advertised, his mom and dad will love it, and Grandma will enjoy reading it to him in a few years, if not sooner.

  9. Coda

    Wait…you wrote a book?

  10. Gus Snarp

    What about “Bad Astronomy”?

  11. Don’t know why you left out “Bad Astronomy”, which I still recommend to folks. Then there are other “bad” books. There is “Bad Medicine: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Distance Healing to Vitamin O” by Christopher Wanjek, and “Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks” by Ben Goldacre. Also consider “The 50 Most Extreme Places in Our Solar System” by David Baker and Todd Ratcliff.

  12. with a devotion to getting as much of the science right as possible

    Yes, this certainly helped get Battlestar Galactica into the mainstream. It’s the CSI of sci-fi!

  13. Isobel

    I have to get that BSG book. I’ve always wondered how the Twelve Colonies worked, how close together were they? They didn’t have FTL when they left Kobol, so they must have been pretty close to make a centralised government workable, so shouldn’t they have been visible in each other’s skies? Shouldn’t we have seen Gemenon, for example, in the skies of Caprica? Hope this goes into detail on that!

  14. Pablo

    Just passing by to say that I bought myself two gifts this season. “Death from the Skies!” hardcover and “The God Delusion” hardcover. Can barely wait for them to arrive!

  15. Michael Swanson

    Obviously Phil needs to plug his own book, but it really is excellent. It was an immensely informative and entertaining read, and I’ve already recommended it to all of my science geek friends.

    But my all time favorite science book (sorry Phil) is “Measuring Eternity” by Martin Gorst. Not only is it a great history book about determining the ages of the Earth, the Solar System and the universe itself, but it wonderfully fills a secondary role of showing young earthers that science isn’t inherently anti-religious. The book starts with Bishop James Ussher, the guy who determined that the Earth was created in 4004BCE, and it pays him his due. His work, for its time, was brilliant, and his dedication was unbelievable. But from there, science is just a process of observation, discovery and correction. Read it!

  16. BJN

    BSG may have made an effort to get some science more “right” but it’s also cram-packed with pseudo-religious and mystical themes that easily offset that effort.

    The root story of BSG is the Mormon story of the “lost tribes of Israel”. The planet Kobol is derived from the Mormon home planet of God, Kolob. There are many other references to Mormon theology and folklore, particularly in the original TV series. The new series is more vague, but is still a dense stew of woo. Dramatic, entertaining, and really worthwhile watching, but woo nonetheless.

  17. Anything from Carl Sagan’s a good idea for a gift.
    Hey, when are we going to see your book in spanish? I want to give away (and borrow later) Muerte desde los Cielos!

  18. Michael Swanson

    Ah, Battlestar Galactica…the best three seasons of TV sci-fi ever. Yes, I know it was on for four seasons.

  19. psuedonymous

    BSG may have had a few moments of almost reasonable science (Space is Quiet! Except for gunfire, engines, and things zooming past if they’re close enough, or explosions if they’re large enough), but as a TV show? Awful! Massively contrived plot, hugely unlikeable characters with little to no development (I know, let’s add ANOTHER dysfunction!) with the entire show hinging on the sheer mind boggling incompetence of the Evil Machines.

    The space battles, while totally unrealistic (essentially space ship knife fights), were rather pretty. Pity they were so few and far between, especially as the show dragged on.

  20. Cain

    I always give “Demon Haunted World” to anyone I want to infect with a love of science and skepticism.

  21. dangermom

    I NEED that book from Trace Beaulieu. However, if anyone cares, I got the “Evolution” book for kids and it was nice, but not as in-depth as I had hoped for. It’s a decent jumping-off point, though.

  22. Brian Too

    Here’s the thing that bothered me about BSG. Why did the machines care?

    I mean obviously they were enemies. However the Cylons achieved almost total victory. Humanity, so far as they knew, were shattered and no threat anymore.

    Yet the machines kept coming. On and on, like they were obsessed. The machines had freedom, victory, a fleet, territory, you name it. The Cylons even tried to rule a camp of humans. For no obvious purpose at all. Why would the Cylons do that? What’s in it for them?

    Here the humans are running away as fast as they can and the Cylons have nothing better to do with their time?

  23. I heartily recommend exciting archaeological novels. written by highly underrated (and under read) authors.

    Clickity click?

  24. Monkey

    Not into the sci-fi rubbish, sorry. The Quantum book looks interesting, though!

    I dare say Im “into geeky things at times” but to lump into the “I like astronomy therefore Im a trekkie…” category is a touch too far fer me!

  25. Monkey

    Can we also stop wishing for Zombies, or talking about zombies….the boredom kills me!

  26. Zyphane

    @BrainToo Didn’t see Battlestar Galactica: The Plan, huh? The Cylons pursuing the remnant fleet has entirely to do with **SPOILERS**Cylon Model 1, Cavil, having some serious daddy/mommy-issues with his creators, the “Final Five” cylons. He was all upset they made him have a lame-o human body instead of any awesome robo-body and that they didn’t love him as much as they did the hoo-mans. He killed them, put them in human society, destroyed human civilization, and after they all survived and joined the fleet, kept harassing them so they would finally come to see that humans aren’t as cool as robots. It didn’t work.**END SPOILERS**.

  27. @Monkey

    Without sci-fi how are you going to prepare for the impending zombie apocalypse?

  28. Donna H

    I’m reading Trick or Treatment by Edzard Ernst & Simon Singh. Highly recommend it.

  29. Monkey
  30. “50 Dangerous Things (you should let your children do)” by Gever Tulley & Julie Seymour is now available in special 5-signed-copy bundles for the Solstice:

  31. I already have some of these books and I want several of the others. I also read this blog daily. Clearly it’s time to admit the obvious, what Phil already knows – I’m a hopeless geek. Is there a twelve-step program or should I just roll with it?

    I’m nominating Dennis Overbye’s Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos. Beautifully written biography/history of cosmology, and particularly poignant in the wake of Allan Sandage’s passing.

  32. There is also a new book available which will make an ideal gift for the über-geek: Live TV From the Moon. It details the aspects of R&D for the technology which ultimately allowed citizens of planet earth to watch as Neil Armstrong first set foot upon the moon. This event wasn’t some science fiction TV series, it was a real historical event – and if you ask me, that is way more exciting! It also is packed with pics and diagrams which put the role of TV during Apollo into its correct perspective.

    Sorry for the balatant plug.

  33. Kathy Moon

    I hear “Packing for Mars” (by the author of “Bonk”) has been getting good reviews.

  34. I’m proud to say my recommendation, “The Calculus Diaries”, is next month’s book in my local skeptics book club. BTW, Kathy Moon@33, “Packing for Mars” was this month’s book. “A little disgusting, but very interesting”, to quote my 8-y-o niece commenting on a dead frog being consumed by a carrion beetle. (I need to get her the Evolution book…)

  35. Oops! Need to correct my previous post. I don’t think the carrion beetle was actually eating the frog, but most likely was scouting it as a location to lay its eggs. P.S. my niece identified it from one of her nature books… She loves looking up things she has found and studying about them, then going back to look at them again.

  36. Michael Swanson

    @ 31. DeafScribe

    “…it’s time to admit the obvious, what Phil already knows – I’m a hopeless geek. Is there a twelve-step program or should I just roll with it?”

    Roll with it, you giant nerd! Be proud!

  37. Michael and DeafScribe:

    Nerds run this planet! And we’re not going to take anymore from the Man!

    Phl: Thanks so much for the kind words about my book.

  38. Judith Brigg

    “So you read this blog, which means you’re a hopeless geek.”



  39. Jen Kline

    If your geek watches DVD’s in the dark at night they would love this gift idea – The Microlite, tiny LED light that illuminates your remote control so you can actually read it in the dark. It looks really high tech too, but is only $10 or three for $19.99.


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