Exploring science by the book


A roundup of the best new science books for Christmas as well as some of the old reliables that just keep selling

HAVE YOU ever had a sleepless night wondering why elephants can’t jump? Or why there are stars in the sky? Or where time comes from? Probably not, but if these sound like useful and interesting questions that need answers, head for the popular science section in your nearest bookstore.

The books there will answer all of these questions and more, but will also give you a “get out of jail free” option when lost for a suitable Christmas gift for the science geek in your life.

Science is a minority sport for most people but attracts a surprisingly large audience when it comes to publishing. “It is a specialist subject area but it holds its own,” says Ciaran Byrne, who organises the large science section at Hodges and Figgis in Dawson Street, Dublin. “It is steady through the year but during Christmas there is an extra rush.”

The bookshop holds a substantial number of science titles in both the academic and the popular areas. But Christmas also brings out the coffee-table-book buyers, attracted either by a slick publishing package or by a title or author currently enjoying the most attention.

Publisher DK’s wonderful Scienceand the boxed book, Genius: Great Inventors and Their Creationsare examples of the former, with matching price tags in the €38 range.

The author “brand” names that are selling best at the moment include the likes of Richard Dawkins ( The God Delusion), Jared Diamond ( The Third Chimpanzee: The evolution and future of the human animal) and Simon Singh ( Big Bang), says Byrne.

But then there are the likes of Stephen Hawking ( The Grand Design: New Answers to the Ultimate Questions of Life, with Leonard Mlodinow) and Bill Bryson ( A Short History of Nearly Everything), who continue to sell their older titles along with their newer ones.

One wonders where the time went when you realise that A Brief Historywas first published in 1988. Yet it always sells despite its complexity, says Byrne. “It is one of those books that everyone has, but few have actually finished.”

Unexpectedly, some of the best-selling popular science books here are about maths, something that simply shouldn’t be given the recent OECD study that suggested the subject was in decline here. Professor Stewart’s Hoard of Mathematical Treasuresand the earlier Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiositiesby Ian Stewart are selling well, Byrne says. Also proving popular is Alex Bellos’ Alex’s Adventures in Numberland: Dispatches from the Wonderful World of Mathematics.

Another title that has attracted huge attention, not least by becoming a New York Timesbest-seller is The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Scienceby Norman Doidge.

David Attenborough, at 83, also has a new book out, First Life: A Journey Back in Timewith Matt Kaplan. Few have done as much as Attenborough to popularise deep science both in his television programming and in the books which typically accompany these BBC programmes.

He has done such a good job that people hardly recognise that he is describing one of the oldest sciences, natural history, while dipping into the latest findings in genetics, evolution and a host of other scientific disciplines. This list only skims the surface when it comes to popular science titles. There will also be biographies on important scientists, plenty of books on astronomy and also on biology, so you should be able to find gifts for everyone and not just the science geeks. By the way, if you are still worrying about the non-jumping elephants read Why Can’t Elephants Jump? and 113 more science questions answered, which makes a great Christmas stocking-stuffer for €8.99.

More stocking fillers

The Christmas book-buying rush is well underway and it is nice to know you can find titles that deliver real science but do so in such a disarming way that you just have to keep reading. Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of life in Spaceby Mary Roach is just such a book. It answers burning questions such as how you pee in zero gravity and whether sex is any good if you are floating. It also describes what it is like when confined in such a small space for months at a time with the same travellers.

Then there is How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dogby Chad Orzel. The author acquires Emmy the dog and the two of them begin a discussion about the intricacies of quantum tunnelling as a useful way to escape being fenced in and quantum teleportation to increase the odds of capturing a squirrel. The reader leaves with a rudimentary but functional understanding of quantum mechanics.

Why Does E = mc2does a similar service for Einstein’s famous formula for changing matter into energy and energy into matter. Authors Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw take the reader through a step-by-step explanation of what energy means, the nature of matter and why the speed of light has something to contribute.

Guardiancolumnist Ben Goldacre will entertain with a book inspired by his columns, Bad Science. In it he picks apart many of the truths about nutrition and health that we hold dear, despite the fact that there is no scientific evidence to shore them up. An award-winning writer, he exposes pseudo science for the lie it is and shows why it is good to ask questions.

Don’t forget the children, who are also catered for in the science section. A particularly nice choice is Ask Me Anything: Every Fact that you Ever Wanted to Know.It explains why the sun won’t shine forever, how dry the desert is and how much you weigh on Venus, amongst other things.