Holiday gift guide for science books: Find your way through parallel universes in print

Brane universes
One hypothesis for the nature of the cosmos visualizes parallel universes as huge membranes, or branes, that are stacked alongside each other in extradimensional space like books in a cosmic bookcase. A “big bang” results when two branes touch. (NASA Illustration / Dana Berry)

Parallel universes are big in science fiction, popping up in shows ranging from the “Terminator” movies to “The Man in the High Castle” to “Hot Tub Time Machine.” And strangely enough, those fictional tales have their parallels this year in a pair of nonfiction books about parallel universes.

We’re leading off our annual holiday roundup of science books with “The Number of the Heavens” and “Something Deeply Hidden,” and continuing the theme with six other thought-provoking picks about other realities, fictional and factual. If that’s not enough, you’ll also find links to geeky book recommendations from outside sources, plus our own top picks from previous years.

Harvard Univ. Press

The Number of the Heavens: A History of the Multiverse and the Quest to Understand the Cosmos: Veteran science journalist Tom Siegfried traces the history of humanity’s musings about other worlds and other universes from Epicurus and other Greek philosophers all the way up to the debate over the inflationary universe, superstrings, branes and other out-there concepts.

You might think this book is only about the multiverse, but it’s really about something bigger: how science has been done through the ages — and how our perspective changes along with our view of the cosmos.

Something Deeply Hidden

Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime: Caltech theoretical physicist Sean M. Carroll’s latest book serves as a good complement to “The Number of the Heavens.” It’s a lot lighter on the history, and a lot heavier on the physics of the many-worlds hypothesis — the idea that, thanks to the weirdness of quantum physics, there are multiple copies of you and me and everything else in a seemingly endless (but finite) array of parallel universes.

Be prepared to deal with some equations — and to have your mind blown.


Exhalation: Stories: Seattle-area author Ted Chiang took his rightful place in the national spotlight with the release of the alien-visitation movie “Arrival” in 2016, which was based on his award-winning novella, “Story of Your Life.”

This short-story collection touches on parallel universes that pack a poetic punch, and on other far-out  themes ranging from artificial intelligence and robotics to the impermanence of species.

“The Great Silence” on Electric Literature serves as a sample.

The Andromeda Evolution

The Andromeda Evolution: Another Pacific Northwest author, Portland’s Daniel H. Wilson, picks up the techno-thriller baton from the late Michael Crichton and runs with it in this sequel to Crichton’s first and arguably best-known novel, “The Andromeda Strain.”

Decades after humanity narrowly triumphs over an extraterrestrial microbe, the telltale signs of the killer strain are detected once again in the Brazilian Amazon. The ensuing drama plays out in locales ranging from the International Space Station to Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane.

Strange Planet
Morrow Gift

Strange Planet: For something completely different, check out writer/illustrator Nathan W. Pyle’s collection of cartoons, starring extraterrestrials who put an otherworldly spin on earthly foibles.

Think of it as the Coneheads from the early days of “Saturday Night Live,” updated for the age of Twitter and Instagram. For example, in a cartoon for Valentine’s Day, one alien presents another with a picture of a heart shot through with an arrow — and declares, “I drew a vital organ being wounded.”

Light From the Void
Smithsonian Books

Light From the Void: Twenty Years of Discovery With NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory: Like the Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra is still on the job long after it was expected to go out of service, but the X-ray space telescope tends to get less press than its older sibling. This coffee-table book makes up for that with 200 pages of color-coded photos and illustrations, featuring glorious X-ray views of nebulae, galaxies and other cosmic phenomena. Among the authors is Megan Watzke, a Seattleite who serves as Chandra’s press officer (and a GeekWire guest commentator).

Imagined Life
Smithsonian Books

Imagined Life: A Speculative Journey Among the Exoplanets in Search of Intelligent Aliens, Ice Creatures and Supergravity Animals: George Mason University’s James Trefil and Michael Summers team up on a book that begins with what scientists have learned about planets beyond our solar system — and goes further to speculate about how life might develop differently on red-dwarf planets, ocean planets, rogue planets and super-Earths.

It’s just the thing to fire up the imagination of armchair astrobiologists and the next generation of planetary scientists.


Agency: We’re cheating a bit by including the next novel from William Gibson, the science-fiction author from Vancouver, B.C., who popularized the term “cyberspace” back in the 1980s. “Agency” isn’t coming out until January, but it’s hard to resist including it in a parallel-universe book roundup. The story focuses on an alternate timeline for 2017 in which a woman has been elected president and Britain has voted down Brexit — with implications for 22nd-century society.

In keeping with the time-twisting plot, “Agency” is described as a stand-alone novel that serves as both a prequel and a sequel to Gibson’s 2014 novel, “The Peripheral.”

More recommendations:

  • Finalists for the 2020 AAAS/Subaru science book awards
  • Outstanding books from the National Science Teachers Association
  • Emily Lakdawalla’s recommended space books for kids
  • Amazon’s best science books of 2019
  • BookAuthority’s best new science books to read in 2020

GeekWire’s holiday backlist: 

  • 2018: Cosmic coffee-table books
  • 2017: Give them the cosmos for Christmas
  • 2016: Books about life, the universe and everything
  • 2015: Gift books for geeks of all ages
  • 2014: 12 geeky books to give (and read!)

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