Midway through my physics degree, I remember turning the last page of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time and realising that, at the umpteenth time of asking, I had not only finished it but had actually understood it as well. If you are buying a present this Christmas, I'd suggest that for most people such a book says "I want to give you a headache" rather than "I love you." Instead, choose your gift to fit the tastes of the reader and take advantage of accessible science writing that is alive and well.
First, a word of warning: science is difficult, right? No, of course not, but it's easy for a book to make it seem so. I'm afraid that I have to include a dishonourable mention for The Grand Design (Bantam Press, £18.99), because it would be strange not to mention a new book by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. If you've not worked your way through a round-up of the goings on at the frontiers of physics recently, this is a decent enough read, but there's nothing new, it's too short and other books are better written.
Likewise, Why Balloons Rise and Apples Fall: The Laws That Make the World Work by Jeff Stewart (Michael O'Mara, £9.99) pretends to be accessible but does so by omitting necessary and informative science. Sometimes, you just need equations and diagrams, otherwise discussion about dark matter and inflation is vacuous.
Coffee-table books – or, more properly, toilet books – come in bite-sized chunks. You don't find this particular vignette to your taste? Don't worry, there's another on the opposite page. Decent stocking fillers in this category include The Naked Scientist: The Science of Everyday Life Laid Bare by Chris Smith (Little, Brown, £12.99), an example of science communication at its best. It offers interesting content that keeps the reader coming back for more, not least because the author doesn't fall into the common trap of bamboozling his audience with unfamiliar terminology. Recipients of this book will be passing these nuggets of knowledge off as their own in the pub. Similarly, Information is Beautiful by David McCandless (Collins, £20) is thought-provoking, lovingly crafted and informative; a handsome book that anyone would be grateful to receive.
Bill Bryson is an exponent of the story-book type of science writing, in which an author's journey of scientific discovery serves to ease the fears of those who might not appreciate pages filled with equations. In this mould, Afterglow of Creation: Decoding the Message from the Beginning of Time by Marcus Chown (Faber, £8.99) takes a single subject – cosmic background radiation – and tells a fascinating story of accidental discovery and cutting-edge physics that sheds light on the first moments of the universe. It will make you chuckle with delight. In the same category, The Edge of Physics: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Cosmology by Anil Ananthaswamy (Duckworth, £16.99) demonstrates that science is exciting and can delight. The story of scientists who have made discoveries – sometimes unlooked for, but far more often as the result of ambition and sheer hard graft – is also magical and inspiring. This book is the best in its class.
The story of scientific discovery is all the more remarkable when you remember the historical context. If your loved one likes snuggling up in front of a fire with a good read, look no further than Seeing Further: The Story of Science and the Royal Society (HarperPress, £25). The Royal Society Prize for Science Books – the only such prize in Britain dedicated to popular science – may be threatened by a lack of funding, but the Society itself goes from strength to strength. This history, with chapters by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Margaret Atwood, Richard Holmes and Martin Rees, is a tale of a global but quintessentially British institution that was created for the advancement of science and rode the subsequent wave of invention, understanding and prosperity. And it's edited by Bill Bryson; need I say more?
Jim al-Khalili has few peers in the realm of science communication. There is little detailed science in Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science (Allen Lane, £25); instead it is a compelling history of Arabic science, worth reading not least to remind ourselves that science didn't begin in 17th-century Britain.
Meanwhile, some books are just sumptuous, so celebrate humankind's unique ability to transfer knowledge in written form by putting a book in pride of place under the Christmas tree. Auntie Beeb publishes some beautiful books, and Wonders of the Solar System by Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen (Collins, £20) will entertain and delight your niece and help her to grow up cognisant of the wonders of the firmament. What a priceless gift that would be.
Jon Tickle presented 'Brainiac: Science Abuse' on Sky One, and judged the 2008 Royal Society Prize for Science Books Junior PrizeReuse content