• Stephen Strum

Great Science and Science Fiction Books

Ideas for your holiday shopping list

Here is an overview of my favorite science and science fiction books I've recently read. Some of these have been released in the past year while some of the books like Dune or the Foundation series are of course quite old. These all make great holiday gifts for the science enthusiast on your list.

Note, as an Amazon Affiliate, I earn a small commission from any purchases through the Amazon links below.

Non-Fiction Reads

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

Midnight in Chernobyl is really amazing. I remember when the Chernobyl accident happened back in 1986. I was in middle school and it was of course something we followed very closely given the magnitude of the event. But, the story of what actually happened and why during the lead-up to the accident and afterward is quite fascinating. I can't say for certain how factually correct all the various details in the book are, but it does give you a far better picture of the accident and environment it took place in, as well as the longer-term repercussions for the Soviet Union, and the world as a whole. The book reads like a thriller and is a gripping tale. I highly recommend this book.

The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

Next up is The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson. If you are interested in science, are an active stock market investor, or just like to stay up to date on the latest technology, this book is a must-read. CRISPR-Cas9 and MRNA are going to dominate the medical field in the coming years. mRNA technology is obviously much more widely known now because of the pandemic, but this has been a rapidly advancing field over the last decade or so. Gene editing with CRISPR is going to revolutionize the way many diseases are treated, and while there is phenomenal promise in terms of bettering humanity, there is obviously the potential for usage in ways that could devastate humanity as well. The technology is going to rapidly advance in the next decade regardless of any laws put in place, and this is a good starting point if you want to start learning more. The companies that are able to leverage this technology successfully are going to make extraordinarily large sums of money, and so if you are an active investor, getting a background on the big players in the field is critical.

Walter Isaacson's books are always really good and highly enjoyable to read, but they are usually not overly exciting reads. They aren't the types of books you rip through on a weekend because you keep wanting to pick it back up and read more. I've read the Einstein and Steve Jobs books by Isaacson and enjoyed those, but parts of Code Breaker read like a thriller. While the book focuses on Jennifer Doudna, all the big players in the field are included, and the race to reach different stages of development between the different research groups is exciting to follow in the book.

This isn't a book that everyone will enjoy reading, but it is one that a lot of people should read.

Liftoff by Eric Berger

If you have any interest in space at all, you are going to love reading Liftoff by Eric Berger. This story follows SpaceX from its founding through the first successful launch of its Falcon 1 rocket. After three failed launch attempts, for a variety of different reasons, SpaceX barely had enough money for one more launch attempt that was obviously ultimately successful. Had that fourth launch failed, SpaceX likely wouldn't exist today and the space launch industry would be dramatically different. This book is incredibly exciting to read and unlike other books about SpaceX that effectively lose relevance over time, this one never will because it focuses on the exciting founding stage of the company and what they had to do in order to get the company off the ground and ultimately succeed. Well worth reading for any space enthusiast or anyone interested in business in general.

Endurance by Scott Kelly

Endurance is the story of Scott Kelly's year spent on the International Space Station. Scott and his twin brother Mark took part in an experiment to help learn about the impacts of long-term time spent in space. Since Scott and Mark were twins and in very similar health, Mark provided a baseline comparison to compare Scott against after his return from a year in space. While those aspects are of course covered in the book, the best part of the book is just reading about the operations of the space station. From the repairs to the social interactions, to the launching and returning on the Russian Soyuz capsules, I learned a lot about the Space Station, and the book is a great read.

Ignition by John D Clark

This book is quite technical at times, but also extremely interesting and surprisingly funny to read. It follows the development of rocket fuels over the years and all the various experiments that took place to develop and test those fuels. If you ever wondered why certain fuels are used in certain spacecraft, this book will help answer those questions. Rocket propulsion is of course important to the military as well, and the book explores the different fuels used in various air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles and there is a lot more complexity to what is used and why than you might expect. Everything from operating temperatures to long-term fuel stability, to safety in handling the fuels, are all important, but there are big trade-offs with each fuel type used and so this book will teach you a lot about all the major fuels that are used.

Anyone with a chemistry background will of course have a big leg up in reading this book, but you don't need an advanced level of chemical knowledge to read this book. The writing style is quite entertaining with plenty of humor splashed throughout the book. You might want to keep this book away from people that would be inclined to try some of the experiments depicted in the book, however.

Overall this is probably a harder read if you have a limited understanding of chemistry but one I think most people could still get through and enjoy. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in rockets, military hardware, or just chemistry in general.

Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries

by Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Neil's writing is always enjoyable to read, and I've read most of his books, but I think this is my favorite. It covers a lot of topics besides Black Holes and is worth reading for anyone interested in astronomy. Even if you already know most of the information included in the book, it is still a fun and entertaining read.

Roadside Geology of Yellowstone Country by Fritz and Thomas

I read this book two years ago after a trip to Yellowstone and actually picked up the book in Yellowstone. I wish I would have read the book prior to the visit, but I do plan to go back sometime in the next few years and this book will be highly valuable. This is a great book if you are interested in the science of Yellowstone and want to see more than just pretty views and geysers. The book is full of specific places to see specific geologic features and so is a great book for planning a visit to Yellowstone.

Extreme Weather by Christopher C Burt

This is a fun book if you are a weather enthusiast as it goes through all types of severe and extreme weather events, and is loaded with all-time records and other information. Some of the information in terms of the records are a bit outdated at this point given the climate trends over the last decade having blown away a lot of the records shown in the book, but it is nonetheless still a great book. Just understand that many of the records shown in the book are not up-to-date.

Krakatoa by Simon Winchester

I read this book several years ago and the book follows the famous massive eruption of Krakatoa and the resulting impacts on the region. Highly recommended if you are interested in volcanology or just like a good disaster-type story.

The Backyard Astronomers Guide by Dickinson and Dyer

I have a lot of astronomy books, and I think this is a good introductory astronomy book for those looking to become familiar with the night sky and are maybe starting out with their own telescope for the first time. This is an updated fourth edition. The book covers everything from different types of telescopes and eyepieces, including the pros and cons of each design, to locating objects in the night sky, and a look at some of the best objects for new astronomers to seek out.

Fiction Reads

I love to read fiction as well, and these are my favorite books I've read since the pandemic started. I read Dune again recently with the release of the movie, and the book is still remarkable and holds up extremely well considering its age. Likewise, I put off reading the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov since I thought I would be put off by the description of the technology, but the series holds up really well, especially once you get past the first few books in the series. I think it is better to read the books in the order they were published rather than the order they occur chronologically. The last two books written in the series take place before the first book in the foundation series. But, I think the series is more enjoyable if you don't have the background of the first two books while reading the others and I also think the writing of Isaac Asimov improved over time, so reading them in the order they were written is smoother.

The final book in The Expanse series is out November 30th, and I'm excited to read the conclusion to the series. It is a great science fiction series and well worth reading.

Hail Mary by Andy Weir came out this year as well and that book was highly enjoyable to read. Of Andy's three novels, I would place this one a close second behind The Martian and ahead of Artemis, but in many ways, it is more enjoyable to read than

The Martian and has a satisfying conclusion.

I like many of Neal Stephenson's books, but I think Seveneves and Cryptonomicon are my favorites. His books are long and sometimes the endings are a bit abrupt and not always as satisfying as one would like, but the stories and the writing are always great. Seveneves is really two books. There are three parts to the book, with Parts 1 and 2 effectively one book, and Part 3 effectively a sequel tossed in for free. I think the book is more enjoyable if you read and think of it that way. Cryptonomicon is great just because of all the historical information on cryptography that I learned. While the history is fictionalized, it still provides a lot of insight and background that can get you started on researching more into the subject.

Dune by Frank Herbert: https://amzn.to/30VMfMu

Hail Mary by Andy Weir: https://amzn.to/3DRDMrG

The Martian by Andy Weir: https://amzn.to/3nMQlyV

The 7 book Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov: https://amzn.to/3112CXZ

The Expanse Series by James S. A. Corey: https://amzn.to/30T6ydr

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson: https://amzn.to/3FMTIMx

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson: https://amzn.to/3cKl1L3

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