Fans of the late science-fiction humorist Douglas Adams know that the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is 42 – but what’s the answer to the annual holiday gift conundrum?
If you’re buying a gift for a science geek, the answer just might come in the form of books about life, the universe and everything. There are far more than 42 volumes that could serve, but we’ll go halfway with a roundup of 21 science books suitable for holiday giving (and reading):
‘The Gene: An Intimate History’: Physician Siddhartha Mukherjee has already won a Pulitzer for his book about cancer and the quest to cure the disease, “The Emperor of All Maladies.” His follow-up tome about the history of genetics and its promise for the future has won similar kudos from the likes of Bill Gates.
‘Modern Prometheus: Editing the Human Genome With CRISPR-Cas9’: Gene-editing technology is the hottest thing in genetics right now, but it doesn’t figure in Mukherjee’s book until the very end. For the full treatment, look into Jim Kozubek’s “Modern Prometheus,” which is best taken in small doses. For an alternate selection, try John Parrington’s “Redesigning Life.”
‘The Cell: A Visual Tour of the Building Block of Life’: Even if you have no interest in biology, you’ll marvel over the colorful photomicrographs on the pages of this coffee-table book. Chances are you’ll get sucked in by the story of how scientists figured out what living things were made of. This is just one of the finalists for the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize. Check out the full list for even more reading suggestions suitable for children and young adults.
‘Virus: An Illustrated Guide to 101 Incredible Microbes’: The rise of the Zika virus was one of the most troubling medical stories of the past year – and yes, it’s covered in this richly illustrated rogue’s gallery by virologist Marilyn J. Roossinck. There’s also a graphic explanation of the inner workings of viruses, and a foreword by renowned science writer Carl Zimmer.
‘Lab Girl’: Geobiologist Hope Jahren started out writing a textbook, but ended up writing a memoir that weaves her personal story into an exploration of botany, paleontology and soil studies. “Lab Girl” already has found a place on plenty of “best book” lists for 2016, and it’s definitely on my shopping list for holiday giving.
‘I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life’: Science writer Ed Yong provides a “microbe’s-eye view” of the world that reveals how bacteria and other critters work for us as well as against us. The title is inspired by a Walt Whitman poem, and Yong’s exploration of the microbiome and the interconnectedness of living things is poetic as well.
‘Deep Life: The Hunt for the Hidden Biology of Earth, Mars and Beyond’: Extreme environments beneath Earth’s surface could well be the crucible where life was forged, and studying the weird creatures that live in such locales could well shed light on how life could endure in Mars’ deep crust or Europa’s hidden ocean. Geoscientist Tullis C. Onstott brings you along on the hunt.
The universe …
‘Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet’: Veteran space reporter Leonard David goes way beyond National Geographic Channel’s “Mars” miniseries to trace the past, present and future of Mars exploration in a coffee-table book that’s crammed chock full of pictures and graphics. Famed filmmaker Ron Howard, one of the executive producers for the miniseries, has written the foreword for this companion book.
‘Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future’: Astrobiologist David Grinspoon starts out by examining the Anthropocene Age on Earth, in which humanity has essentially taken control of the planet and its long-term fate. But he doesn’t stop there: The focus of the story widens to take in the search for life elsewhere in the universe, and what the search is teaching us about our own species.
‘Night Sky With the Naked Eye: How to Find Planets, Constellations, Satellites and Other Night Sky Wonders Without a Telescope’: Amateur astronomer Bob King, aka Astro Bob, provides easy-to-follow instructions for enjoying the simple pleasures of the sky and fills you in on the science behind the sights. This book will help you get ready for the total solar eclipse visible from the United States next August.
‘Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos’: Universe Today’s Nancy Atkinson tells the stories behind space missions ranging from Apollo’s moonshots, to the Mars rovers’ perambulations, to the tribulations of NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler telescope. I particularly like the fact that she leads off with the New Horizons mission to Pluto, my favorite dwarf planet.
‘Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour’: Astrophysicists Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael Strauss and J. Richard Gott team up for a readable survey of the universe, from our solar system’s worlds to cosmic inflation and the multiverse. They don’t stint on the details, and yes, there’s some math involved, but it’s well worth the journey. Just one thing: Neil, I still beg to differ with the chapter titled “Why Pluto Is Not a Planet.”
‘Visions of the Universe: A Coloring Journey Through Math’s Great Mysteries’: And now for something completely different … a coloring book for grown-ups (or kids) who appreciate the beauty of math. This is a follow-up to a similarly mathemagical book by Alex Bellos and Edmund Harriss, titled “Patterns of the Universe.” Fill in the shapes with your coloring tools of choice – pencils or crayons work best – and learn about such curiosities as Brownian trees and the Kolakoski sequence along the way.
‘Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War’: Best-selling author Mary Roach has delved into the science of spooks, stiffs, sex, space travel and the alimentary canal, all with a touch of humor. In her latest book, she takes on all the scientific angles associated with soldiering. You’ll find out how warfighters deal with heat exhaustion, bird strikes, wounds, flies and a case of the runs. Roach rarely pulls her punches, or her punch lines.
‘Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens’: It’s been 36 years since Mount St. Helens blew its top, causing a billion dollars’ worth of damage and killing 57 people. That’s long enough for Seattle-based science writer Steve Olson to put Washington state’s best-known geological cataclysm into perspective, but still recent enough to get the eyewitness stories of those whose lives were touched.
‘Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine’: This 40-page picture book, aimed at readers in grades 1 through 4, recounts the story of Ada Lovelace, the 19th-century countess who is often counted as history’s first computer programmer. The author is Laurie Wallmark, and the illustrator is April Chu. This is one of the books recommended by the National Science Teachers Association for K-12 students. Check out the NSTA’s full list.
‘Oh, Ick! 114 Science Experiments Guaranteed to Gross You Out’: Want to make a sweet snot sandwich? A farting slime bag? The how-to’s devised by Joy Masoff (with Jessica Garrett and Ben Ligon) aren’t as icky as they sound, but they could be fun for curious kids aged 8 or older. One experiment turns the kids into DNA detectives – and shows them how to extract strands of DNA from a glass of slimy, soapy lentil juice. Yum!
‘Treecology: 30 Activities and Observations for Exploring the World of Trees and Forests’: Monica Russo’s book can pull your science-minded kiddos away from the reading chair and get them out in the woods. The activities laid out in the book will help students in grades 3 through 7 identify plants and figure out how trees are put together. This could be the beginning of a beautiful botanical relationship.
‘Pedro ‘n’ Pip: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Odyssey’: Here’s a “multimedia children’s book experience” from Taylor Barton, created with an assist from her husband, musician GE Smith (best known for his decade-long stint as the bandleader on “Saturday Night Live”). It’s an environmentally themed tale about a 10-year-old girl named Pip and her eight-armed friend Pedro, a “rockoctopus” she met while scuba diving after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The book, suitable for ages 8 to 12, is illustrated by Dana Cooper and comes with online access to more than a dozen songs that are woven into the story. Performers include Barton and Smith.
‘Version Control’: How will self-driving cars and artificial intelligence change our lives? What if you throw in a causality violation device, also known as a time machine? Dexter Palmer’s novel is on my holiday reading list, based on the strength of reviews like this one from NPR: “‘Version Control’ is a thoughtful, powerful overhaul of the age-old time travel tale, one that doesn’t radically deconstruct the genre so much as explore it more broadly and deeply.” An alternate selection would be Seattle author Ted Chiang’s “Stories of Your Life and Others,” which includes the short story on which the movie “Arrival” is based.
‘The Origins of Everything in 100 Pages (More or Less)’: What’s a roundup of books about everything without a book that’s specifically about everything. Geophysicist David Bercovici traces 13.8 billion years of history about cosmology, civilization and everything in between, in just 112 pages. For a classic alternate selection, check out Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything.”