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5 Books for quirky science lovers

Aga Zano By Aga Zano Published on January 20, 2016
This article was updated on March 21, 2018

If you're not an engineer, there's a fair chance you still enjoy learning about science... But perhaps on the lighter side. You know - full of amazing female scholars, cats, laser guns, and weird anecdotes. 

Here's a short list of books packed with strange-yet-true facts, delightful illustrations, and (sometimes) slightly suspicious quotations that will make you question what you know and leave you hungry for more.

They will equip you with some cold hard facts, but they'll serve them enveloped in a healthy dose of humour, art, and fun stories to whip out at a party or during that awkward business lunch. Well, you might want to be careful with that last one.

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer by Sydney Padua

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Let's start with the good stuff, shall we? Sydney Padua's book is a hilarious graphic novel telling us the story of Ada Lovelace, one of the greatest celebrities of the world of science - she was the first computer programmer in history, way before the first computer was built (take that, Steve Jobs). She was also a mathematician, a writer and illegitimate daughter of that punk of a poet, George Byron. If that was not already more than enough to make a great story, she also collaborated with Charles Babbage, the inventor of the difference engine, a very early version of a computer, and she eventually managed to surpass his work.

It is peppered with very liberal amounts of speculative fiction (what if Lovelace and Baabbage actually managed to create their opus magnum, Analytical Engine?), but also heavily laced with facts and both historical and scientific references - it's pretty clear that the author has been taking classes in the art of footnote positioning from Susanna Clarke.

Best thing about this book: you never thought theorethical mathematics could be THAT much fun.

Caution: you might end up believing the Victorians used ray guns.

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Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words by Randall Munroe

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You might know Randall Munroe as the creator of the legendary (as far as the internet goes) online comic xkcd, a "stick-figure strip featuring humour about technology, science, mathematics and relationships", as described by the author himself. 

Since Munroe used to be an engineer for NASA, it's safe to assume he might know a thing or two about science - and he's happy to share with millions of fans (yes, more people follow a comic about physics than try to keep up with the Kardashians, so there's still some hope left for the humanity).

Thing Explainer is his newest book in which he explains technology, natural phenomena and scientific concepts using only 1000 most common words in the English language (and some handy blueprints, drawn in his signature style). Read it and you'll learn all you need about such things as:

  • the shared space house (the International Space Station)
  • the big flat rocks we live on (tectonic plates)
  • the pieces everything is made of (the periodic table)
  • planes with turning wings (helicopters)

And much, much more.

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Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science - and the World by Rachel Swaby

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This witty, sharp and straight-to-the-point book will take you through the biographies of 52 most inspiring and innovative women in the history of science - and I promise it won't be boring. It tells the stories of ladies who excelled and pioneered in engineering, chemistry, medicine or genetics - often held back, discouraged or laughed at by the society. 

Their very existence would be considered such abnormality that their professors would admit "having wondered what a female physics student may look like" (as it happened to Sally Ride, astrophysicist).

Still, they were unafraid to dream big - Marie Tharp, for example, "wanted a job that held her interest, but squinting through microscopes all day sounded tedious and excavating dinosaur skeletons just took too long", so eventually she settled for a "a once-in-the-history-of-the-world opportunity" to map the ocean floor... As you do.

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss

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This is more than just a book - Radioactive is a piece of scientific art, and once you get to put your hands on it, you're not going to give it back. Redniss tells the story of Maria Sklodowska, later known as Marie Curie, the legendary scientist and the only woman in history to receive two Nobel prizes. There isn't much text in this book, and it's often arranged in unexpected ways, as the visual and the textual are melted in one excellent piece of literary work. Redniss introduces Marie from a very personal perspective, but also provides quite in-depth explanation of the Curies' scientific work and its consequences - for themselves, for other people, and for the humanity.

The visual side is probably the most enjoyable part of this book - it requires the reader to get actively involved, but it also offers a good deal of historical evidence, such as reproductions of formerly classified FBI documents or the first x-ray in history. However, all these elements are encased in extraordinary artistic form that seems to glow from the inside - just like a piece of radioactive substance Marie used to keep in a jar by her pillow. 

Luckily, this book is guaranteed to be less deadly.

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An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments by Ali Almossawi and Alejandro Giraldo

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Don't let the adorable illustrations and child-like cover deceive you. This is the ultimate book of logical flaws and misconceptions, explained and illustrated by sepia-toned balls of fluff, who commit all the most common logical mistakes you may stumble upon every day online. From now on, you'll be able to tell when someone's trying to pull a wanky equivocation or the classical straw man fallacy - and more importantly, it'll make you think of rabbits dressed up as cowboys. 

“A flawless compendium of flaws.” —Alice Roberts, PhD, anatomist, writer, and presenter of The Incredible Human Journey

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Translator, linguist, copywriter, literary agent. Enjoys bad puns, exploring ruined buildings and being the weird one.