"An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth," "Timelines of Science," "Lego Space," "Scaly Spotted Feathered Frilled" and "Earth From Space" are among the books on the menu for holiday giving.
E-books may be transforming the publishing world, but during the holidays, it's still wonderful to hold an actual gift book in your hands. If you learn something from your gift, so much the better. Here's our annual roundup of books about science and technology that are suited for the coffee table, the library table or the kids' table. In a nod to the tablet revolution, we're including a "Top 5" list for the iPad as well. And we'd love to hear your suggestions, whether they're for the reading table or the tablet.
For the coffee table:
- The Best American Infographics 2013: Gareth Cook's roundup of data visualizations from the past year isn't your typical coffee-table book, but it's perfect for perusing while the coffee is being served. The compendium includes a breakdown of classic cocktails, visually arresting depictions of Twitter traffic and eye-opening analyses of America's red-vs.-blue political trends. Bonus points awarded for the introduction by David Byrne.
- Earth From Space: Photographer and environmental activist Yann Arthus-Bertrand pulls together glorious imagery from Earth-observing satellites — but these are more than just pretty pictures. Colorful views document what's happening to the hotspots on our planet, from the Chernobyl nuclear site to the disappearance of Mount Kilimanjaro's snow and the Aral Sea's water.
- The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects: The pages of this thick volume tell the story of America from the Burgess Shale fossils, to Lewis and Clark's compass, to Neil Armstrong's spacesuit. If you don't feel a need to have all these gems from the Smithsonian's collection on your coffee table, you can always browse through the museum's online exhibit hall.
- Lego Space: Building the Future: Lego blocks make it possible to build and own spaceships and space bases — just this month, I made my own XCOR Aerospace rocket plane. But the creations featured in the book put together by Peter Reid and Tim Goddard are in a whole different class. It's almost as fun to page through the Federation's Lego space scenes as it would be to build them. And the book takes up much less shelf space. "This book is so great," the Planetary Society's Emily Lakdawalla declares. (Check out her other book reviews.)
- Timelines of Science: Wikipedia is great, but there's still a place for books like this one. The Smithsonian's coffee-table book is bursting with scientific discoveries and engineering advances, from the development of stone tools 2.5 million years ago to SpaceX's commercial launches to the International Space Station.
For the library table:
- An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth: Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield became a space superstar, thanks to his seemingly superhuman schedule of photo-taking, guitar-strumming and science-explaining sessions — in addition to his duties as the International Space Station's commander. Now Hadfield is back on Earth, writing about how the lessons he learned in space can be applied to our planet's challenges.
- Bird Sense: What It's Like to Be a Bird: Ornithologist Tim Birkhead's book delves into the alien senses of avians — for example, how birds see ultraviolet colors we miss, how flamingos can feel rain coming from hundreds of miles away, or how robins use magnetism to get their bearings. "The heart of 'Bird Sense' is the remarkable ordinary," Tim Dee writes for The Observer.
- The Drunken Botanist: The Plants that Create the World's Great Drinks: The origins of intoxicating drinks serve as an entree for Amy Stewart's tale of how plants and herbs gave rise to so much pleasure. Pour yourself a drink and read it while you wait for Adam Rogers' book, "Proof: The Science of Booze."
- The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II: Technology and history come together in Denise Kieman's novel-like saga about the women who secretly worked on the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tenn. For another perspective on that era, check out Paul Kennedy's new book, "Engineers of Victory."
- Letters to a Young Scientist: Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson distills 60 years of teaching into a book for students, scientists and science fans of all ages.
For the kids' table:
- Beyond the Solar System: Exploring Galaxies, Black Holes, Alien Planets and More: Mary Kay Carson's 144-page book lays out 21 hands-on projects that help middle-schoolers trace humanity's pursuit of astronomical knowledge.
- Eruption! Volcanoes and the Science of Saving Lives:Elizabeth Rusch's book focuses on how volcanologists made a difference during the life-threatening eruptions of Colombia’s Nevado del Ruiz in 1985, the Philippines' Mount Pinatubo in 1991 and Indonesia's Mount Merapi in 2010. "This book gives tragic and terrifying volcanoes a sense of story that other books lack by talking about real-life crises and how individuals came together to keep millions of people safe," the School Library Journal says.
- Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas: The author behind the science-themed graphic novels "Feynman" and "T-Minus," Jim Ottaviani, graphically traces the tale of three great primatologists, with illustrations by Maris Wicks. A great graphic novel to spend time with while we wait for Ottaviani's "Hawking" bio.
- The Skull in the Rock: How a Scientist, a Boy and Google Earth Opened a New Window on Human Origins: Paleoanthropologist Lee Berger just finished the precedent-setting Rising Star Expedition in South Africa, but five years ago, he made another dazzling discovery about human ancestors. Actually, it was his 9-year-old son Matthew who made the discovery. Berger and co-author Marc Aronson recount the tale in a book suitable for middle-graders.
- Scaly Spotted Feathered Frilled: How do we know what dinosaurs really looked like? Catherine Thimmesh's book shows how artists have adapted to scientific findings about dinosaur feathers, pigments and biomechanics. Paleo blogger Brian Switek says it's "an excellent primer for young dinosaur fans and aspiring paleoartists alike."
For the tablet:
- Evolution: This iPad app from Britain's Natural History Museum traces more than 650 million years of Earth's history and shows what evolutionary biology can reveal about more than 800 creatures and plants from the past. "You could easily lose yourself in this app for an epoch or two," Nick Peers says on TechRadar.
- Kings and Queens: If you needed any evidence that English kings and queens rule when it comes to historical interest, you need look no further than the fuss over Richard III's remains, or TV shows such as "The Tudors" and "The White Queen." But how can you keep Henry IV and Henry VI straight? Historian David Starkey's iPad app, developed by Trade Mobile, untangles all those royal tales. "The app uses a timeline user interface to explore the history of the English monarchy, with a wealth of background material to dive into," writes The Guardian's Stuart Dredge.
- March of the Dinosaurs: This interactive iPad storybook from Touch Press (publisher of "The Elements" and "Solar System") tells the story of an edmontosaurus named Scar, and introduces other characters from the Cretaceous along the way. Follow the tale in interactive or narrative mode. "You can enjoy this adventure on your own terms," Know Your Apps' Ryan Butt says. (For an iPad reference work on dinosaurs, check out National Geographic's Ultimate Dinopedia.)
- The Particles: It's great that the Large Hadron Collider found the Higgs boson, but what's a boson? Science Photo Library's iPad app takes you on a tour of the subatomic particle zoo. It's a "physics geek's dream," according to Mashable's Pete Pachal.
- The Pyramids: Touch Press' 3-D iPad app lets you fly over Egypt's Giza Plateau, explore the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids, and delve into labyrinthine tombs and passageways. "Packed with then-and-now photos and reconstructions ... We lost ourselves for an entire afternoon, and kept coming back!" Focus Magazine's James Lloyd writes.
From the backlist:
Got recommendations for the reading table? Or for tablets — particularly Android, Kindle or Surface tablets? Pass 'em along in the comment section. And send in your suggestions for this year's Science Geek Gift Guide as well. You may win a prize!
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.
First published November 29 2013, 1:12 PM