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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

10 Amazing Science Books That Reveal The Wonders Of The Universe

If you're looking for a perfect holiday gift for science lovers, consider these ten amazing books. They prove science is awesomer than fiction, and are packed with beautiful pictures too.

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1. On the Origin of Species: The Illustrated Edition
by Charles Darwin with David Quammen

Darwin's original book didn't just kick off the fiercest scientific debate of the last 200 years... it's also a well-written book that is actually surprisingly fun to read. But this new edition released to celebrate the book's 150th anniversary takes it into a whole new dimension, incorporating over 350 beautiful photographs and illustrations that provide visual context for Darwin's ideas. Even better, this edition incorporates selections from Darwin's earlier travel journal The Voyage of the Beagle as well as various letters and diary entries, exploring the more personal side of his journey to one of history's greatest scientific discoveries.

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2. The Six-Cornered Snowflake 
by Johannes Kepler

It's not every book by a pioneering scientific genius that advertises itself as a great gift, so this book by the father of modern astronomy deserves some attention. Back in 1611, Kepler wrote an essay wondering why snowflakes always had perfect, sixfold symmetry.

It's a simple enough question, but one that no one had ever asked before and one that couldn't actually be answered for another three centuries. Still, in trying to work out an answer, Kepler raised some fascinating questions about physics, math, and biology, and now you can watch in wonder as a great scientific genius unleashes the full force of his intellect on a seemingly trivial question, complete with new illustrations and essays to put it all in perspective.

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3. The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements 
by Sam Kean

We've discovered 112 formally recognized elements, and every last one has a story - sometimes hilarious, sometimes frightening - to tell. This book recounts the discovery and use of every last element, introducing us to some of science's most colorful and eccentric figures.

The titular tale of the disappearing spoon is a great example - because gallium melts at 84 degrees Fahrenheit, scientists like to play a practical joke where they shape samples of the element into spoons, then watch with amusement as their friends' utensils melt before their eyes. But this isn't just about the lighter side of the periodic table, as Kean also uses these anecdotes to help explain just why elements behave the way that they do.

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4. Star Vistas: A Collection of Fine Art Astrophotography 
by Greg Parker and Noel Carboni

We like to offer our fair share of space porn, but this book is the glossy, definitive 50th anniversary Playboy collection of space porn. (I'm sure that pullquote will be going on the next edition of this book.)

The cool thing about this book is the every photo was made using the same equipment and software any amateur star-watcher would do to take pictures of the night sky. These photos look at the Moon and nearby constellations that more research-oriented telescopes like Hubble typically ignore. This book may not revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos, but there aren't many better collections of beautiful photos of the heavens.

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5. America In Space: NASA's First Fifty Years
by Steven Dick, Robert Jacobs, Constance Moore, and Bertram Ulrich

These days, NASA is at something of a crossroads, its space shuttle program winding down and its successor program still up in the air. Yes, NASA has seen better why not celebrate them?

This book, published in 2007 for administration's 50th anniversary, covers every facet of its history from the first rockets and astronaut recruits to the space shuttles and International Space Station, with even a little room set aside for poor old Skylab. As a bonus, the book begins with a foreword from the Neil Armstrong, the generally reclusive first human on the Moon.

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6. Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
by Mary Roach

If you're looking for a scuzzier companion piece to the glossy history of NASA, then I have got just the book for you.

Roach asks every possible question one could possibly have about what's it like out in space, uncovering the secrets of astronaut etiquette, the often bizarre tests people have to pass in order to prove they have the proverbial right stuff, the dangers of space vomit, and all the little random ordinary things on Earth that become extraordinary when you do them in zero gravity.

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7. Sizing up the Universe: The Cosmos in Perspective
by J. Richard Gott and Robert J. Vanderbei

It's one thing to explore the universe - how about putting it all in perspective? But here you run up against a problem pointed out by the 20th century's greatest author: "Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is." That's why this book is so awesome.

It's pages and pages of different cosmic objects put to scale next to each other: the United States compared to a sunspot, the Grand Canyon dropped into Mars's vast Valle Marineris, the Sun compared with stellar supergiants, and even our solar system put next to the planets orbiting other stars. It's an amazing chance to expand your perspective, but don't take my word for it - check out this glowing praise from our friends at New Scientist.

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8. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 
by Rebecca Skloot

This book is a little heavier than some of the others on this list, but this is one of the most compelling, largely untold stories of twentieth century science.

59 years ago, a poor African American woman in Baltimore died of an extremely aggressive form of cancer. Unbeknown to her or her family, doctors took a sample of her cells and discovered that, unlike any other human samples, her cancerous cells thrived in laboratory conditions.

These so-called immortal cells were a boon to biology, including help find a cure for polio. Rebecca Skloot recounts not just the scientific side of what these cells accomplished, but also the human story of what happened when Henrietta Lacks's family discovered her secret role in twentieth century medicine.

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9. Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities
by Amy Stewart

It's high time that we animals realized the terrible truth: plants are trying to kill us. (Doctor Who has been saying it for decades.) Author Amy Stewart provides a colorful overview of some of nature's deadliest plants, examining all the different kinds of killer flora that eons of murderous evolution has produced.

Meeting at the intersection of hard science and local folklore, Stewart covers everything from the weed that did in Abraham Lincoln's mother to the shrubs that, well, explode. Yes, this book talks about exploding shrubs. Honestly, that's probably all I ever needed to say.

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10. Breaking the Time Barrier: The Race to Build the First Time Machine
by Jenny Randles

Time travel is ever so slightly starting to sneak back into serious scientific discussions, and this book takes an awesomely kitchen sink approach to examine what we know, what we don't know, and what we might eventually know.

Randles considers what cutting edge science has to say, but she also surveys more than a century's worth of science fiction on the subject. Even better, she looks at time travel research on the fringes of science. It can be hard keeping straight what's science and what isn't - with time travel, that pretty much comes with the territory - but it's all immensely entertaining.

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