Holiday Gift Idea: Offbeat Science Books

From Rube Goldberg devices to jet packs, these books cover subjects that won’t disappoint.

Today on SciFri, science writer Deborah Blum and Brain Pickings editor Maria Popova join Ira to highlight some wonderful science books that you might consider gift-giving this season. Here at SciArts, we couldn’t resist weighing in with our own slightly offbeat gift nominations. Below are science books we hope will amuse and inspire your giftees—and maybe even prompt some DIY projects this holiday break. Have your own book suggestion? Add it to the comments section.

The Art of Rube Goldberg_Cover ArtFor the MacGyver:
The Art of Rube Goldberg (A) Inventive (B) Cartoon (C) Genius, selected and with commentary by Jennifer George; introduction by Adam Gopnik (Abrams ComicArts, 2013)

For the basement inventor, tinkerer, or Sunday funnies fan, you won’t do better than The Art of Rube Goldberg, a collection of comics and sketches selected by Goldberg’s granddaughter, Jennifer George. For the cover, paper engineer Andrew Baron designed a kinetic sculpture replica of Goldberg’s 1939 cartoon “Simple Way to Get Fresh Orange Juice Upon Awakening.” As with typical Goldberg devices, the mechanism is less than “simple”: Move Baron’s paper pull-tab from side-to-side, and watch a “pet Albanian ook” twitch its tail, causing an orange to get squeezed between two brass cymbals. And that’s just the beginning.


Animal Earth 9780500516966For the Exotic Fauna Fan:
Animal Earth: The Amazing Diversity of Living Forms, by Ross Piper (Thames & Hudson, 2013)

Paging through zoologist Ross Piper’s Animal Earth, you quickly realize: In the vast animal kingdom, the province of cute animals is small. Animal Earth brims with mugs only a mama hagfish could love. But that’s probably why this book is so captivating. Stunning photos, scanning electron microscope images, and illustrations give us a view into the secret lives of water bears (tiny, ponderous creatures that live in aquatic moss; see a video here), sea squirts (which collect in large flower-shaped colonies), and strange worms (so mysterious biologists call them, well, “strange worms”). Piper’s text explains how this awe-inspiring diversity descended from a common ancestor as many as 4 billion years ago.


Great American Jet Pack coverFor the Rocket Man:
The Great American Jet Pack: The Quest for the Ultimate Individual Lift Device, by Steve Lehto (Chicago Review Press, 2013)

Jet packs have been a scifi fantasy for so long, your giftee might not realize they actually got off the ground. They did—briefly—as readers of Steve Lehto’s lively history of these futuristic devices will discover. The Great American Jet Pack tells the story of a machine that, despite technological advances, always seems just out of reach. In their attempts to pioneer personal flight for the average Joe, engineers embraced everything from ”flying shoes” and “jump belts” to hovering platforms, often to arrive at the same conclusion: Jet pack flying is better left to the test pilots. As one such pilot joked, flying a “rocket belt” was like walking across a gym—on top of a basketball.


Barely Imagined coverFor the Fantasy Aficionado:
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary, by Caspar Henderson (The University of Chicago Press, 2013)

Caspar Henderson’s The Book of Barely Imagined Beings is an A-to-Z guide to the strange creatures that populate our planet, told in the form of a medieval “bestiary.” The bestiaries of old were catalogues of animal life both mythic (dragons) and real (salamanders), containing, Henderson writes, “zany pictures, bizarre zoology, and religious parables.” While the beasts in Henderson’s modern take are all real, his book retains the charming eclecticism of those old tomes, mingling scientific descriptions with literary and mythological lore (though fact is clearly delineated from fiction). A chapter on the infamous “honey badger,” for instance, references modern zoology, Herodotus’s The Histories, the language of Tanzania’s Hadza tribe, and the infamous internet video “The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger.”


9781452109527For the Kids (and Kids at Heart):
How to Build A Hovercraft: Air Cannons, Magnet Motors, and 25 Other Amazing DIY Science Projects, by Stephen Voltz and Fritz Grobe (Chronicle Books, 2013)

It’s no jet pack, but a hovercraft might just be the closest your nieces and nephews will come to manned flight this holiday season (outside of the airplane ride to Grandma’s house). Luckily Stephen Voltz and Fritz Grobe (you might know them as “the Coke and Mentos Guys”) have made constructing such a device relatively easy, and understanding the science behind it even easier. But the hovercraft is just one of the DIY experiments Voltz and Grobe outline in How to Build a Hovercraft. Other projects range from simple paper-and-tape affairs (such as a nifty visual illusion that causes the eyes of a paper cutout to follow you around a room) to complex constructions (a plastic tub air cannon). Before you gift, know that many projects require adult help, and you might want to consider just how soda-soaked you’d like your lawn to get.

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About Annie Minoff

Annie Minoff is a producer for The Journal from Gimlet Media and the Wall Street Journal, and a former co-host and producer of Undiscovered. She also plays the banjo.

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