Science books: from sneezing in space to the ‘sweet spot’ of stress

Curl up with a good book or three this Christmas

Buzz Aldrin on the moon in 1969. Photograph: Nasa/Liaison

Buzz Aldrin on the moon in 1969. Photograph: Nasa/Liaison


This festive season, I’m looking forward to curling up with a good book or three. I’m not alone. So if anyone in your life is dropping similar hints about literary cocooning, why not give their curious minds the gift of a book about science?

Bugs, genes, humans, facts and stress

In recent years microbes have come into focus as drivers as well as passengers of larger organisms, including humanss. You can barely open a newspaper these days without reading about some facet of our health being linked to the microbes that call us home. It’s a hyped field, but in his book I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, science writer Ed Yong takes a deep and sensible dive in to this complex and fascinating dimension of biology that affects our everyday lives.

Dr Adam Rutherford takes on another hyped area in his latest book. In A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Stories in Our Genes, he eviscerates some widely held misperceptions about genes, genealogy and the roles of DNA in the complexity of human biology.

On the topic of humans, two books by Yuval Noah Harari are well worth some holiday time. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind looks at the evolution of our species, and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow takes a speculative and sometimes chilling look at where we are headed.

For those who want to know more about knowing, let them unwrap The Half Life of Facts by Samuel Arbesman (from 2013), which looks at why facts have an expiration date and delves into the science of science itself.

And for when festive season is a bit full-on, offer refuge with The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper by Prof Ian Robertson of Trinity College Dublin, which explores how finding the “sweet spot” of stress can be good for you.

Conversation-feeding tomes

Books about science can be a great way of starting conversations around the dinner or coffee table, and What’s it Like in Space: Stories from Astronauts Who’ve Been There is sure to inspire. It is written by Ariel Waldman, with illustrations by Brian Standeford, and lifts the lid on the tricks of sleeping in microgravity, aiming a sneeze during a spacewalk and the perils of burping in space.

Science and the City: The Mechanics Behind the Metropolis by Irish author Laurie Winkless, captivates with insights about the science and engineering of why buildings stay up, how water and waste move around cities and plenty more.

Meanwhile, data fans can feast their eyes on books by David McCandless, including Knowledge is Beautiful (2014), which uses infographics to visualise data, connections and patterns that make you think.

Audiobooks and ebooks

Don’t forget too, that plenty of science books (including many mentioned here) are available as ebooks or audiobooks. That gives you more gift options for friends and family who live far away, or for those who enjoy reading on the go. Audiobooks have the added advantage of providing an engaging soundscape for those bleak January post-excess jogs.