This Christmas, gift a book from the lighter side of sci-tech

9 Dec 2015

Christmas is coming, and the shopping list is getting fat. So we’re here to give you a hand with at least the ideas stage.

Here at, we’ve spent the last few weeks creating lists of books that the sci-tech lovers in your life will, well… love.

Our first foray into the world of the must-read saw us pointing you in the right direction on books for those who just can’t get their fill of science knowledge – a serious look at the world of science and technology, if you will.

With this latest list, we look at the other side of that coin. Plenty of knowledge here, too, but with a slightly different flavour.

This? This is the lighter side of sci-tech.

Rocket Boys – Homer H Hickam

Non-fiction books: Rocket Boys

Homer H Hickam’s memoir, Rocket Boys, tells the story of how the dreams of one young man – Hickam himself – and his group of devoted friends irrevocably changed the community of Coalwood, West Virginia.

Coalwood was a mining town left behind by the American post-war boom. Set against the backdrop of the ever-looming mine, Rocket Boys details “Sonny” Hickam’s moment of inspiration as he sees Sputnik sail across the sky, a tug-of-war between father and son as they each reach for very different futures, and the resilience of friendship and scientific discovery.

Throughout the book, Hickam and friends defy Hickam’s father (the mine foreman), their school principal and the mining company to fulfil their dream – blasting their own rocket into space.

Later in life, Hickam would end up working at NASA, so the story does have a happy ending, but there’s a hint of despair in much of the story – despair at being stuck, at being at the mercy of outside forces and, for want of a better word, fate. That despair is neatly tempered by the optimism of the young men at the centre of the tale. Every attempt at flight brings a boost of hope and, in the book’s final sequence, your heart will soar right along with that rocket, and with the hearts of the people of Coalwood.

With a writing style vaguely reminiscent of Maine’s favourite son, Stephen King, Hickam’s story trips along nicely, catching the reader up in a story that takes them from the depths of the earth to the dizzying heights of the stars.

Recommended for: Those with big hopes, and even bigger dreams.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth – Chris Hadfield

Non-fiction books: An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth

There are few music superstars who are literally out of this world, but Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield was certainly one of them when his rendition of David Bowie’s Space Oddity aboard the International Space Station (ISS) catapulted him to fame in 2013.

It didn’t come as much surprise, then, that following his retirement after he landed back on Earth, he would decide to write an autobiography about his life and his space adventures.

Reading An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, you get an overwhelming sense of how difficult it is to actually get there in the first place, and you realise that 99pc of an astronaut’s training is spent thinking of ways you could possibly die and preparing for them.

All of this, strangely enough, makes for a rather enjoyable and uplifting read. And yes, the pun was intentional.

Recommended for: Those with their eyes on the skies.

Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words – Randall Munroe

Non-fiction books: Thing Explainer

A former NASA robotics expert, Randall Munroe is probably best known for his work on the xkcd comic strip. Now, though, he has released his sophomore book, Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, which does exactly what it says on the cover.

With Thing Explainer, Munroe takes objects and concepts that you may find confusing, and boils them down to something even an infant could understand. The interesting part of the book is that he does that using only the 1,000 most commonly used words in the English language.

The book is an extension of the xkcd strip of November 12, 2012, Up Goer Five, which explained the design of the Saturn V rocket – the rocket that drove the Apollo missions – in a way even the least scientific mind among us could understand.

Following that initial idea, and using clever blueprints, Thing Explainer describes airplanes as “sky boats”, a nuclear reactor as a “heavy metal power building”, and the centre of the universe as the “really hot part where all the here comes from”.

Even Bill Gates is a fan.

Recommended for: People who want to know how things work, but don’t want to have to get the dictionary out.

This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress – John Brockman

Non-fiction books: This Idea Must Die

Compiled by John Brockman, publisher of website, This Idea Must Die brings together some of the planet’s leading thinkers and asks them, ‘What scientific idea is ready for retirement?’

Asking the question of 175 of the world’s leading scientists, artists and philosophers, Brockman elicited answers from a huge range of people.

Among many other contributors, the book features Richard Dawkins, who renounces essentialism; Alan Guth, who rethinks the origins of the universe; and Nina Jablonski, who argues that we need to rid ourselves of the concept of race.

This book was compiled as part of the’s annual question series, which sees Brockman asks the world’s leading minds a different question each year, and which has been running since 1998. The most famous book produced from the series is likely This Explains Everything, which was published in 2012, while What To Think About Machines That Think has just been published.

Recommended for: The armchair philosopher in your life.

The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets – Simon Singh

Non-fiction books: The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets

It wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility to suggest that everyone reading this right now has seen at least one episode of Fox’s biggest hit, The Simpsons. The series has entered the zeitgeist to such a degree that Simpsons quotes are as ubiquitous as the rain clouds this winter.

What even the most die-hard Simpsons fan isn’t necessarily aware of, however, is the secret side of the show. The maths side of the show. Of the vast number of TV shows and movies that dip their toe into the world of mathematics, it is – surprisingly enough – The Simpsons that dives deepest, and with most accuracy.

In The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, Simon Singh delves into the hidden world of The Simpsons’ (and sister show, Futurama’s) mathematical prowess. Many of the writers on the show are trained mathematicians, which may go some way to explaining why, throughout the series’ run, the show was peppered with maths jokes and commentary.

With The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, Singh explores the cartoons’ complicated relationship with maths and, along the way, gives us a fascinating insight behind the yellow curtain.

Recommended for: Fans of maths and The Simpsons – a small group, sure, but not one to overlook.

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical QuestionsRandall Munroe

Non-fiction books: What If?

Randall Munroe’s second entry on this list, and his first foray into publishing, What If? is another great choice for fans of the xkcd comic strips. A series that originated on the xkcd partner site, What If?, the premise sees Munroe take questions – largely preposterous – and try to add some scientific reasoning into attempts to answer them.

It’s not just for science nuts. If anything, it’s more for us broad, average, simply-entertained humans, who operate outside the realm of exacting measures and specifications.

As an example of what to expect from the weirdly instructive, if silly, book, what if New Horizons, the spacecraft that took pictures of Pluto, hit my car? Well, explains Munroe, your car would splash, rather than crumple, as it is destroyed. But, “Here’s the good news: NASA will have to pay for [it]!”

Recommended for: Those who have endless, bizarre questions, and no hope of answering them.

Football Manager Stole My Life – Iain Macintosh

Non-fiction books: Football Manager Stole My Life

This might seem baffling to a large number of you, but a football management game in which you basically play with a rather advanced spreadsheet is just one of those strangely addictive things.

Football Manager sees you taking on the role of manager of a club of your choosing, attempting to guide them to glory by buying players, tweaking formations and, if you wish, watching tiny stick versions of your players play on a pitch.

It’s the ‘one more win’ mentality when you’re top of the Premier League with Bolton Wanderers that keeps you hooked and, for those who play it regularly enough, there are always a number of stories where obsession with the game gets a bit out of hand.

This is where Iain Macintosh’s book comes in. Football Manager Stole My Life combines anecdotes of real-life Football Manager devotees – like the player who wore an actual suit for the fictional FA Cup final taking place only in his bedroom – with interviews with the creators of the game.

Recommended for: The niche Football Manager-playing audience, who will surely see a little of themselves in this book.

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