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Hopkins on the International Space Station
NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins reads a book titled “Max Goes to the Space Station” in 2014 during a space station outreach activity called Story Time From Space. (Credit: NASA / STFS)

In this age of e-readers, there are still occasions when it’s nice to have a book printed on actual paper – like holiday giving, for instance. But which book works best as a gift for a science geek?

In honor of the 12 days of Christmas, here are a dozen recently published science books that have been well-received and are well-suited for gift wrapping. And if you still want to save a tree, some of them work just fine as e-books as well.

Coffee-table books

Thing Explainer
“Thing Explainer” by Randall Munroe (Credit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

‘Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words’: Randall Munroe, the cartoonist behind XKCD and the author of “What If,” provides highly visual (and often highly hilarious) explanations for complicated concepts using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language. (Or should that be “the ten hundred most used words”?) For a taste, check out Munroe’s New Yorker piece explaining general relativity in simple words.

‘The Hubble Cosmos: 25 Years of New Vistas in Space’: Space curator David Devorkin and historian Robert Smith team up to trace the 25-year history of the Hubble Space Telescope in 25 richly illustrated vignettes.

‘Arctica: The Vanishing North’: Explorer-photographer Sebastian Copeland pays tribute to Arctic lands and the North Pole in a picture book that will give you chills – not only because of the beauty of the images, but also because of the region’s fragility in a warming world.

Children’s books

Rosie Revere, Engineer
“Rosie Revere, Engineer” (Credit:

‘Rosie Revere, Engineer’: Author Andrea Beaty teams up with illustrator David Roberts to tell the story of a girl who gains the confidence to show off her inventions. “Rosie Revere, Engineer” is one of the children’s books due to be sent to the International Space Station this week for the “Story Time From Space” educational program. (Ages 5-7)

‘Max Goes to Mars’: This is one of five books by Jeffrey Bennett that are being read to kids by astronauts on the space station. Max is a dog that gets into all sorts of space adventures, including trips to the station and to the moon. The Mars book was updated this year with findings from NASA’s Curiosity rover. (Ages 7-9)

‘Creature Features: Twenty-Five Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do’: Steve Jenkins and Robin Page blend colorful close-ups of exotic animals with snarky but sweet answers to questions about animal appearance. For example: “Dear Egyptian vulture: Why no feathers on your face?” “Are you sure you want to know? Really? Okay, I’ll tell you. I stick my face into the bodies of the dead animals I eat, and feathers would get pretty messy.” (Ages 4-7)

Science-fiction books

“Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson. (Credit: William Morrow)

‘Seveneves’: What would happen if the moon blew up? Seattle sci-fi luminary Neal Stephenson conjures up a tale of cosmic survival, set exclusively in our corner of the solar system. Stephenson is known for his densely packed, geeky, ultra-long-form novels, and “Seveneves” serves as a classic 880-page example.

‘Aurora’: Even if we could travel to other stars, should we? Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel follows up on his Mars trilogy and “2312” with the tale of a multigenerational mission to send colonists to Tau Ceti – an effort that leads to some thought-provoking twists.

‘Hollyweird Science: From Quantum Quirks to the Multiverse’: This book isn’t science fiction, but it delves deeply into the science facts (and scientist archetypes) behind the fiction. The authors are Kevin Grazier, a space scientist who’s served as an adviser for movies and TV shows; and Stephen Cass, a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. They cover Hollywood sci-fi sagas from “The Abyss” to “The Zula Patrol” – with lots about “Star Trek,” but hardly a word about “Star Wars.”


Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace plays a starring role in “The Innovators.” (Credit: Alfred Edward Chalon via Science & Society Picture Library)

‘The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution’: Walter Isaacson begins and ends his survey of computational innovators with Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace, the woman who pioneered computer programming in the 1840s. Isaacson’s previous books include biographies of individual geniuses, including Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs. “The Innovators” is different in that it features a dizzying array of characters, including some who are still in the middle of their geeky life stories.

‘The Wright Brothers’: Orville and Wilbur get the full treatment from David McCullough, whose past biographies have focused on the likes of John Adams and Harry Truman. This book delves deeply into the trials and triumphs of two brothers who would surely be called geeks if they lived today – and whose flying inventions arguably had at least as much impact on the world as Adams and Truman did.

‘Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future’: What makes Elon tick? Ashlee Vance’s biography paints a complex picture of the 21st-century heir to Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs. Is he a dreamy-eyed visionary who has his heart set on making humanity a multiplanet species? A steely-eyed businessman who drives his employees to extremes? You’ll see both sides in “Elon Musk.”

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