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Science by the book

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Books on scientific subjects offer the world ... and other planets as well.

Science books used to show dinosaurs exclusively in shades of scaly green and brown. Books about the solar system used to list just nine planets, and books about the subatomic world didn't go much farther than protons, neutrons and electrons.

As times have changed, so has the science - and so should science books. Just in time for holiday giving, here's a selection of books for kids (and grownups) that incorporate recent developments on the scientific frontiers.

Dinosaurs:
University of Maryland paleontologist Thomas Holtz's 432-page "Dinosaurs: The Most Complete, Up-to-Date Encyclopedia for Dinosaur Lovers of All Ages" was written two years ago, but it still stands up to the test of time. The encyclopedia touches on hundreds of species of dinosaurs (including the feathered kinds) and describes their world in detail. Holtz has even created a Web page to update the text and provide links to other online resources.

Holtz passed along other recommendations in an e-mail: "I would put Scott Sampson's 'Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life' as the top recent adult book, and Darren Naish's 'The Great Dinosaur Discoveries' as the best new coffee-table book. For kids, after my own (of course) the new DK Publishing 'Prehistoric Life' is really comprehensive in all types of fossil organisms (and good for adults as well). I've heard good things about National Geographic's 'The Dinosaur Museum,' too. For a short book, Bakker & Rey's 'Dinosaurs!' is very nice and modern."

Astronomy:
The solar system is usually a crowd-pleaser among the kids, and our perspective on our own cosmic neighborhood has changed quite a bit in the past few years. "The New Solar System" by Patricia Daniels, which came out in August, reflects all those changes - including the shifting views on what it means to be a planet. That shift is also reflected in two children's books that take a wide stance on the planethood question: "11 Planets" by David Aguilar and "Ten Worlds" by Ken Croswell. What's a parent to do? I address that in my own newly published book about the solar system shift, "The Case for Pluto."

For readers ages 9 and up, one of the best places to go for books about Earth science and planetary science is the Sally Ride Science Store.

Looking beyond the planets, DK's "Universe," edited by British astronomer royal Martin Rees, takes you all the way to the edges of the cosmos. If your child is looking for something more Harry Potteresque, take a look at "George's Cosmic Treasure Hunt," the latest tale from famed physicist Stephen Hawking and his daughter Lucy. And for wee ones who wonder about black holes, Brian Greene's "Icarus at the Edge of Time" might be just the thing. (I chatted with Greene about the book last year.)

One of the latest coffee-table books with an astronomical theme is "Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle" by Michael Benson - and the reviews glow as brightly as the galaxy on the book's cover: "breathtaking" ... "mind-blowing" ..." spectacular."

There's a wide selection of sky guides suitable for the stargazer on your gift list. "Stars and Planets," "The Rough Guide to the Universe" and "The Backyard Astronomer's Guide" were all updated just last year. True space geeks might also appreciate an oldie but goodie: "The Compact NASA Atlas of the Solar System," which co-author Ronald Greeley says is still the best true interplanetary atlas in print, eight years after it was published. (What else would you expect him to say?)

Space history:
CollectSpace's Robert Pearlman passes along these recommendations for up-to-date children's books having to do with the history of spaceflight: "Look to the Stars" by Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin and Wendell Minor, and "Mission Control, This Is Apollo" by Apollo 12 moonwalker Alan Bean and Andrew Chaikin. These and many more books were published this year to mark the 40th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing. I listed more than a dozen of them to celebrate the occasion.

For still more selections, click on over to Out of the Cradle and check out Ken Murphy's book reviews as well as the Lunar Library.

Nanotechnology:
One of the problems with nanotechnology is that it's sometimes hard to describe exactly what it is, particularly for the kid crowd. Believe it or not, there's a book for that: Marlene Bourne's "MEMS and Nanotechnology for Kids," a 32-page picture book designed for students aged 11 and up.

For the older set, there's "No Small Matter: Science on the Nanoscale" by Felice C. Frankel and George M. Whitesides, a coffee-table book that cleverly wedges in-depth descriptions of the nanoworld in between bunches of beautiful pictures. If you're a fan of photomicrographs like the Olympus BioScapes pictures we published last week, you'll like this book - as well as Seymour Simon's "Out of Sight: Pictures of Hidden Worlds."   

Physics and more:
The restart of the world's biggest particle smasher, the Large Hadron Collider, should spark interest in recently published books that delve into the big picture surrounding subatomic physics, such as "Why Does E=mc2?" by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw, "Collider" by Paul Halpern and "The Quantum Frontier" by Don Lincoln. (I talked with Lincoln about his book earlier this year.) If you're up for delving into the nature of ultimate reality, you can explore "The Lightness of Being" by Frank Wilczek. (Here's a Q&A with the author.) And if you want a good subatomic scare, check out these totally fictional doomsdays.

I wish the LHC pop-up book, "Voyage to the Heart of Matter," were more easily available - as it is, you'll have to order it from the publisher in Britain (and wait for the pre-orders to be filled). Pop-up fans can content themselves with "The Story of Everything" by Neal Layton, which addresses subjects ranging from the big bang to human evolution.

Speaking of everything, I have a feeling nearly every science-minded young reader will get a kick out of "A Really Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson. This newly published book is a kid-friendly adaptation of Bryson's classic work, "A Short History of Nearly Everything," which was a selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club five years ago. David M. Schwartz's alphabet books about science and math - "Q Is for Quark" and "G Is for Googol," respectively - are also easy on the eyes and the brain.

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Feel free to add your own recommended reading as a comment below. Join the Cosmic Log team by signing up as my Facebook friend or following b0yle on Twitter. And pick up a copy of my new book, "The Case for Pluto." If you're partial to the planetary underdogs, you'll be pleased to know that I've set up a Facebook fan page for "The Case for Pluto."