Gift Guide: Science and technology books for adults and kids

This is a short list of science books that came out over the last year that I’ve reviewed, and thought you might do well to be reminded of. Since your holiday shopping list surely includes targets with a range of demographics interests, I made this a diverse list.

Strange Survivors: How Organisms Attack and Defend in the Game of Life by Oné R. Pagán is an excellent book with the evolutionary arms race, competition, and nature red in tooth and claw (and many other parts) as its theme. Well written and humorous, and scientifically accurate.

Mike Haubrich and I interviewed the author, and the Ikonokast Podcast of that interview IS HERE.

From the Publisher:

Life is beautiful, ruthless, and very, very strange.

In the evolutionary arms race that has raged on since life began, organisms have developed an endless variety of survival strategies. From sharp claws to brute strength, camouflage to venom?all these tools and abilities share one purpose: to keep their bearer alive long enough to reproduce, helping the species avoid extinction. Every living thing on this planet has developed a time-tested arsenal of weapons and defenses. Some of these weapons and defenses, however, are decidedly more unusual than others.

In Strange Survivors, biologist Oné R. Pagán takes us on a tour of the improbable, the ingenious, and the just plain bizarre ways that creatures fight for life.

Inside this funny, fascinating field guide to nature’s most colorful characters, you’ll meet killer snails, social bacteria, and an animal with toxic elbows. But Strange Survivors is more than a collection of curiosities?it is a love letter to science and an argument for the continuing relevance of this evolutionary battle as we face the threat of resistant bacteria and the need for novel medical therapies. Whether discussing blood-thinning bats and electric fish or pondering the power of cooperation, Pagán reveals the surprising lessons found in some of life’s natural oddities and how the tactics they employ to live might aid our own survival.

Life on Earth: Dinosaurs: With 100 Questions and 70 Lift-flaps! by Heather Alexander and Andres Lozano, is very wordy. For example, it might say “how did a dinosaur become a fossil? on the flap, and underneath it give the three stages of diagenesis. Oddly, the book is listed on Amazon as being for preschool to first graders, but the material is way advanced beyond that. I’d put this book at 2nd-3rd grade. But it is a flip book.

As noted in the title, there are 100 different questions, all with answers, with 70 of them being written on flaps.

I learned something interesting. I had not known about Therizinosaurus with its very long claws, thought to be used for digging. But I was very disappointed to find out that the teeth on this critter were clearly not adapted to eating roots. Oh well. (The latter was not in the book, something I had to research elsewhere.)

The answer to the question, “Why did the dinosaurs die out” is found under three separate flaps, each with a different hypothesis. That is in fact the current “consensus” as I understand it. Some will object to the book not insisting that dinosaurs never went extinct because there are birds. But they did, of course, go extinct. Just like the synapsids went extinct. Or did they?

Anyway, Life on Earth: Dinosaurs: With 100 Questions and 70 Lift-flaps! is a fun book, good for kids in first, second, or third grade.

In the same series: Life on Earth: Human Body, Life on Earth: Farm: With 100 Questions and 70 Lift-flaps!, and Life on Earth: Jungle: With 100 Questions and 70 Lift-flaps!. I only briefly looked through the “Jungle” book (as it were) and, as do most kids books on jungles (aka “rain forests”) it conflates the forest, savanna, and all the animals on all the continents. Hard to get away from that.

How do you keep your kids out of trouble in this digital age, short of locking them under the stairs like Harry Potter? You probably can’t, but I cover a couple of resources you might consider, here.

George R. McGhee Jr.’s Carboniferous Giants and Mass Extinction: The Late Paleozoic Ice Age World is not light reading. It is an academic treatise delving into climate change and geology, and related evolution, of the Carboniferous period. The Carboniferous was about 60 million years long, followed the Devonian and preceded the Permian, and the name refers to the giant amounts of coal that apparently formed during this period. This was a warm period and a period with multiple ice ages. The time span covered in this book, which goes well more recent than just the Carboniferous, is plenty long enough for all the continents to travel great distances, and the basic configuration of the Earth to change. There were periods so warm that multi-cellular land life likely did not exist at all in the tropics. The arctic was covered with a continent and it was very warm and lush, even if dark for half the time.

This is probably the time for a book like this, since over the last decade or so a great deal of field research and laboratory analysis of isotopes and other invisible things has led us to the point where a comprehensive overview of great and deep time, globally, is possible without the use of truthy but overdone generalizations. You get the sense form McGhee’s book of significant variation across space and time that is understood at some level of detail. Paleontology turns time machine at a finer scale than usual. You also get a sense of the bigness of change that can happen in the ecological systems we have here on Earth. It is very big. Outright scary, in fact.

Not a science book per se, but I do want to recommend that you get Steve Novella’s excellent new edition of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake. My detailed review is here.

Beauty and the Beak: How Science, Technology, and a 3D-Printed Beak Rescued a Bald Eagle is an award winning science book that delves very deeply, much more deeply than most kid-level books, into at least four separate topics.

First, this is a story about a specific, real (not made up) eagle (to eventually be named “Beauty”). In this story, the egg comes first. We track Beauty the eagle through all the eagle life history stages, and few details are left out. A kid who absorbs this material will know ten times more than the average person about bird life history.

Eagles are not the most typical of birds (song birds are the most common and thus often considered more typical), but large raptors in general are fully bird-like but extreme, and of special interest in relation to humans; the main difference between an eagle and a song bird is timing. Eagles go through the same life history stages but they take years rather than one single annual cycle as almost other birds do. Humans have the same life history pattern as typical primates, but extended as well.

(Also, not mentioned in the book, a major division among birds is how sexual selection differentiates by sex. You have males elaborated (robins, cardinals, mallards), neither sex elaborated (crows), both sexes similarly elaborated (bald eagles), or each sex independently elaborated (love birds, parrots, macaws). Most of this probably has to do with nesting dynamics, ultimately. Eagles are the both-sexes-elaborated style bird, so males and females end up being virtually identical to we humans. But I digress.)

The life history story, exceedingly well done and highly engaging, and scientifically accurate, is the first large part of the book.

But then there is a catastrophe. A horrible thing happens to Beauty, and she almost dies. I guess a warning is needed here. It is not too gory, but it is a little gory, and some kids may be a little upset. But it is handled well by the authors.

After this point, it becomes a story of rescue and recovery, but also, a story about technology. In order to save the bird, it is necessary to build a prosthetic replacement beak. A biotechnology expert is brought in by the raptor rescue expert, and with a great deal of difficulty and trial and error, using 3D printer technology and excellent glue, the bird is made nearly whole again. There are details about what happens to the bird next that I won’t tell you, but they are very interesting. If you read this book you will learn things about bird beaks that you never thought about before.

The other themes are about the Bald Eagle as a symbol, conservation of raptors, and raptor rescue.

And, of course, there are numerous namechecks and callouts to other resources to learn more about eagles and eagle conservation, or get involved.

This is probably the best science book for kids to come out over the last two years. This is probably why it is the winner of the American Association for Advancement of Science/Subaru prize for excellence, and the California Reading Association Eureka Award for nonfiction (2017). It is also a Junior Library Guild selection.

There is an educational guide PDF available to go with the book as well, HERE.

I am going to keep my review copy of this book, of course, but I’m also going to buy a second copy and donate it to Huxley’s school library, or perhaps his classroom. Maybe one for each.

Beauty and the Beak should be a model for other science books for kids.

The Authors:

Deborah Lee Rose is an internationally published, award-winning author of children’s books (including Jimmy the Joey: The True Story of an Amazing Koala Rescue and The Twelve Days of Winter: A School Counting Book). She was also Director of Communications for Lindsay Wildlife Experience, which includes the first wildlife hospital in the U.S.

Janie Veltkamp is a raptor biologist and rehabilitator, wildlife educator, trained nurse, and master falconer. She has lifetime care of Beauty and led the engineering team who made Beauty’s prosthetic beak. Jane is founding director of Birds of Prey Northwest, in Idaho. She is the eagle expert for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s Native American Aviaries.

When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11: Or How to Explain Quantum Physics with Heavy Metal is a new book by the amazing Philip Moriarty. You may know Moriarty from the Sixty Symbols Youtube Channel.

You can listen to an interview Mike Haubrich and I conducted with Philip Moriarty here, on Ikonokast. Our conversation wanders widely through the bright halls of education, the dark recesses of of philosophy of science and math(s), the nanotiny, and we even talk about the book a bit.

Moriarty, an experienced and beloved teacher at the University of Nottingham, uses heavy metal to explain some of the most difficult to understand concepts of nano science. Much of this has to do with waves, and when it comes to particle physics, wave are exactly half the story. This idea came to him in part because of what he calls the great overlap in the Venn Diagram of aspiring physicists and intense metal fans. Feedback, rhythm, guitar strings twanging (or not), are both explained by the same theories that help us understand the quantum world, and are touchstones to explaining that world.

I’ve read all the books that do this, that attempt to explain this area of physics, and they are mostly pretty great. When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11 does it the best. Is this because it is the most recent? Does Philip Moriarty stand on the shoulders of giants? Or is it because the author has hit on a better way of explaining this material, and thus, owes his greatness to the smallness of his contemporaries? We may never know, but I promise you that When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11 is a great way to shoulder your way into the smallness of the smallest worlds.

Also, not so much a science book but, in this case, a science history book (yet not a “history of science” book … “History of Science” is a discipline of which author Neil deGrasse Tyson is not a practitioner.) Anyway, the famous and widely loved Neil deGrasse Tyson has a book coming out (for preorder) that reminded me of that story. It is called Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military. The co-author is Avis Lang.

I’ve written a detailed review and something of a critique of the book here My critique is not book killing, but rather, a brief admonishment to the authors to not yammer on about what people did in the Paleolithic, or what happened in human evolutionary time frames, or what cultures do anywhere, without having much of a clue. Common problem. Otherwise, though, great book.

I am strongly recommending Amazing Arachnids by Jillian Cowles.

This book is in line to win the Greg Laden’s Blog Science Book of the Year.

Sample text, to give a taste of the science
It looks like a high quality, almost coffee table like, book on the arachnids, things like mites and spiders and such. But that is only what it appears to be on the surface. Just below the surface, it is a compendium of evolutionary amazingness, a detailed description of the photogenic history, behavioral biology, and co-evolution of plants and animals, with almost all the protagonists in the numerous loosely connected stories being one sort or another of amazing arachnid.

Geographically, the book focuses on the arid American Southwest. This allows the author to be quasi-comprehensive in coverage of species (about 300 from among 11 orders). It also allows the author to tell the story of these critters as a story, with interconnected features of evolution and ecology. This is literary hard core science, with great illustrations (about 750 color photos, and other illustrations).

Because of the US SW focus, it might be a better purchase for people living in just that area. But as is the case with a handful of other nature-oriented books, like the The New Neotropical Companion, the science content and overall interest of the book transcends geography. You’re not really going to want to get that close to these arachnids anyway….

This is a very good book. You will learn things, even if you already know a lot about arachnids.

The author is a clinical microbiologists and photographer.

Coding with Scratch
First, in case you don’t know, “Scratch” is a programming language and environment.

Its mascot is a cat, of course, but the name “scratch” supposedly comes from the use of scratching by disk jockeys. Scratch was first developed at MIT back in the early 2000s, and has advanced considerably since then. You now see the basic format of this language either duplicated or mimicked in many different environments.

Scratch can be an online langauge or you can run a stand alone version, but the former is easier and better. To get started, go here and follow instructions.

If you want (your kid or you) to learn scratch fast, you may want to consider getting the cards produced by No Starch Press. You can get ScratchJr Coding Cards for ages 5 and up, or the much more advanced Scratch Coding Cards for kids 8 and above.

The idea is simple. You put the stack of cards on your desk next to the computer, which is tuned to the MIT Scratch site. Then you try out the stuff in the cards. By the time you are done you (or your kid if you step aside and allow access to the computer) will be pretty good at scratch programming.

I used the 3 year and above cards with Huxley, and we are about to start on the 8 and above cards, although he is very advanced and we are likely to skip past the first several.

By the way, Scratch runs on the web so you can access it from any sort of desktop or laptop computer including Chromebooks,a nd there are iOS and Android versions. It runs on the Kindle Fire as well.

LEGO related books (Links to my reviews):

The LEGO Christmas Ornaments Book, Volume 2: 16 Designs to Spread Holiday Cheer

LEGO Micro Cities: Build Your Own Mini Metropolis!

LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox

The LEGO Architecture Idea Book: 1001 Ideas for Brickwork, Siding, Windows, Columns, Roofing, and Much, Much More

Not yet reviewed, but recommended:

365 Things to Do with LEGO Bricks: Lego Fun Every Day of the Year

The LEGO Zoo: 50 Easy-to-Build Animals

The LEGO Neighborhood Book: Build Your Own LEGO Town!

The LEGO Neighborhood Book 2: Build Your Own City!

The Lego Ideas Book: Unlock Your Imagination

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