Gift Books for Young Readers of Science Topics

This gift giving season there are several new books available that are perfect for the young readers on your list who are curious about science topics. Here is a guide to several titles to consider as better presents than video games for teens and grown-ups too.

Death Rays, Jet Packs, Stunts & Supercars: The Fantastic Physics of Film’s Most Celebrated Secret Agent
By Barry Parker
Johns Hopkins University Press, 288 pages, $25.00

Even though the secret agent is not named in the title of this book, you know the author is referring to Bond. James Bond. Physics professor Barry Parker has a terrific idea here – to scrutinize the science of the special effects on parade in the James Bond movies. What his execution lacks in aplomb, his concept makes up for in enthusiasm. This is written for those who won’t master Bond’s insouciance, but who can ace the science. It is as if the professor’s mortar board hovers over the work, providing shelter to grow innovative concepts, but blocking the light that sparks inspired writing. You will find yourself wishing the professor got beyond the word “amazing” in his thesarus, but then realize it would have taken him to “awesome” and there is no telling how long he would be stuck there. The number of times he uses the phrase “a lot” is uncountable, but let’s just say it is a lot, sometimes twice in the same sentence, as when he compares a film to its predecessors “in that it contains a lot of action and also involves a lot of physics.”

Style aside, Parker’s book is loaded with information and neatly organized into chapter discussions of stunts, lasers, conveyances, gadgets, cars, chases, space and guns. In the context of each Bond movie, Parker explains the science behind helicopters, jet engines, hovercraft, radar, x-rays, Geiger counters, global positioning satellites, safe cracking, turbocharging and much more. He provides data that a secret agent needs to know and that the rest of us just like to know. For instance:

  • A dry avalanche travels at about 80 mph and a wet one travels at about 20 mph.
  • To escape Earth’s gravitational pull, an object must achieve a speed of 25,000 mph.
  • Geosynchronous orbit is an orbit duration of exactly one day to correspond with the rotation period on Earth.
  • Geostationary orbit is geosynchronous orbit over the equator, making satellites appear stationary in the sky from Earth.
  • The speed that Earth moves around the Sun is 66,000 mph. The Earth rotates on its own axis at a speed of 1,000 mph.
  • Laser beams are not visible to the naked eye.
  • The bulletproofing material Kevlar was invented by Du Pont in 1966.

Parker spices things up with some movie trivia as well. He lets us know that the Las Vegas car chase sequence in “Diamonds Are Forever” required the purchasing of 53 cars and 24 of those were completely demolished during filming. He points out a blooper in that screen sequence. Bond’s car is tipped on the two right side wheels as it escapes through a narrow alley, but it is tipped on the two left side wheels as it emerges from the alley.

If you present this book to students on your gift list majoring in English, it may set their teeth on edge. However, if you present this to students on your list majoring in science, it will set their imagination in motion.

The Space Tourist’s Handbook: Where To Go, What To See, And How To Prepare For The Ride Of Your Life
By Eric Anderson and Joshua Piven
Quirk Books, 192 pages, $15.95

The wonderful handbook is co-written by Eric Anderson, who is the president of the Space Adventures company and a proponent of civilian space travel, and Joshua Piven, one of the authors of “The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook.” Their unlikely pairing gives this book its edginess. If you are familiar with the “Worst-Case Scenario” series, then you can appreciate the wit and wisdom delivered in this book.

For instance, the chapter about flight training explains that medical examiners have to approve of your physical and psychological condition as a prerequisite to space travel. In a list titled “How To Appear Sane In The Psychological Exam,” the authors advise, “Avoid use of the ‘Royal We.’ (Do not refer to yourself in the third person or say ‘we’ when you mean ‘I.’ Both are indications that you may have control issues or problems dealing with authority figures)” and “Avoid uncontrollable sobbing.” In a section on language training for space tourists flying on a Soyuz craft, the authors offer helpful Russian phonetic pronunciations of phrases such as, “When will this spinning stop?” and “What does this button do?” and “When should we bail out?”

True to the “Worst-Case” formula, there is a section titled “How To Survive If Your Vehicle Detonates On The Launch Pad.” The tongue in cheek tone is sustained with such tossed out reminders as, “When visiting the moon, be sure to bring the flag of your native country,” as casually as trifling travel writers tell you to pack moist towelettes when you visit the Kalahari.

This handbook for space travelers has the same look and feel of the “Worst-Case” book, with the distinctive rounded corners and clean graphics. Instead of the trademark orange, the designers here have chosen a weird chartreuse color throughout, so if you are even slightly prone to color blindness or reading in low light conditions, many of the captions and titles blend into the background undiscernably. Nevertheless, there is a great section of stand-alone full color photos. The chapters are distinctly devoted to topics such as space transportation vehicles (including the newest reality, the Chinese Shenzhou), destinations, tour packages, flight training, navigation, emergencies, zero gravity, sightseeing, spacewalking, how to eat (and subsequently, eliminate), exercising, reentry and splash down. The science is solid and the information is current. There is even a suggestion for space etiquette: do not play chess. “Though especially popular with Russian cosmonauts, playing chess on the Space Station is serious business and can lead to conflict. Politely decline any invitation to play.”

The book’s forward is written by the first traveler to pay for his own ticket into space, Dennis Tito. He notes that his multi-million dollar fare aboard a Soyuz rocket with five-day accommodations at the International Space Station in 2001 covered “the salaries of more than ten thousand Russian space workers for at least a year.” That was a bargain, according to Tito. He warns that writing the check is the easiest part. It is the preparation that will wring you out. Space travel is grueling and “no one is going to babysit you, no matter how much you spend.”

First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong
By James R. Hansen
Simon & Schuster, 784 pages, $30.00

While a space travel handbook is a novelty to us, Neil Armstrong can actually say he’s been there and done that. This first authorized biography of Mr. Armstrong is enlightening on multiple levels. The most valuable function it serves is to set out in stark contrast how little we know about a man who has accomplished the most important mission of exploration in recorded history versus how much we know about many people who have accomplished nothing. Ironic, isn’t it, that we know the haircuts, sleeping partners, dressing styles and dining spots of celebrities with no credentials and yet probably wouldn’t recognize the first man to tread upon and return safely from another world if he were standing next to us in line at the grocery store. What fools these mortals be.

In this long-awaited biography, author James R. Hansen fills in the blanks of this genuine icon. The peculiarities of Armstrong’s post-moon walk fame are fascinating and are addressed with a certain sadness by Hansen. It is reported that Armstrong’s barber sold a clipping of his hair for $3,000, that Boy Scouts continue to demand letters of recognition, that “Capricorn One” conspiracy theorists persist in hounding with stacks of Bibles, that “Mr. Gorky” is just a dirty Buddy Hackett joke, that fake autographs circulate among collectors, and so on. Although there is no single act as tragic as the crime Charles Lindbergh was confronted with after his heroic feat, the litany of craziness is a reminder of the warped value we seem to place on fame.

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