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Nerd Science: Some People Just Want to Watch the World Learn


Posted March 1, 2014 by

Are you interested in learning about some generally difficult scientific concepts while being entertained at the same time? Look no further. The following books are accessible non-fiction books about some of the harder-to-grasp real life scientific topics. They aren’t just accessible, though. They’re about nerd science. Confused about physics, check out The Physics of Superheroes. Want to learn more about math? Read The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets. Some of the books are serious, some of them are much less so. (After all, not all books about nerd science were ever going to be completely serious.) Pick your favorite topic, and explore the wonderful world of nerd science!

Nerd Science: Non-Fiction
  1. The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios
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    “Those not overly familiar with superhero comic books may be surprised to learn that anything in comic books could be scientifically correct, but one can learn a lot of science from reading comic books.”

    This book goes over key concepts in physics, such as Newton’s laws of gravity and motion, centripetal acceleration, the properties of matter, conservation of energy, the three laws of thermodynamics, and quantum mechanics. What makes it great, though, is that it does so in relation to comic book heroes. How is Superman able to leap over buildings in a single bound? It’s a simple matter of using Newton’s laws of motion and the equation F=ma. What is the connection between genetic mutation (for mutants like Iceman and Storm) and thermodynamics? Check out chapter 13, “Mutant Meteorology– Conduction and Convection.” What would, in reality, make it possible for Kitty Pryde to walk or the Flash to run through walls? Well, that can be explained, in theory, by the tunneling phenomena of quantum mechanics. (Although it isn’t mentioned, tunneling also seems to be the plausible explanation to witches and wizards crossing the barrier at Platform 9 3/4 in the Harry Potter universe, if we were explaining away the magic of it.)

  2. The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets by Simon Singh. Singh is a well-established mathematical nerd sciencewriter, writing books on difficult concepts that are accessible to the layman. Published just last year in 2013, The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets is his newest contribution. As a bonus, while the book focuses on math in The Simpsons, there is a chapter on Groening’s Futurama as well. Chapter 0 exposes the truth about The Simpsons—that is really is full of math. Accurate math, even. At least five of the writers for the show have Bachelors in math or physics, and some of them are interviewed for the book. The first chapter, “Bart the Genius,” starts out with the history of The Simpsons, then jumps right into the first instances of math showing up in the show. If you’re a fan of the wacky mathematics in The Simpsons and Futurama, or just want to learn more about what the heck they’re talking about, this book is definitely for you.
  3. Wizards, Aliens, and Starships: Physics and Math in Fantasy and Science Fiction by Charles L. Adler.Unlike some of the other books on this list, Wizards, Aliens, and Starships deals with the implications of magic in terms of specifically. More specifically, there is an entire section on what Adler deems “Potter Physics.” In this section, he deals with topics like why transfiguration is at odds with the conservation of mass and why disapparition is at odds with the conservation of momentum. The other sections cover space travel, world and aliens, and year Googol. Other nerdy references? Avatar, Armageddon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Earthsea, dragons, interstellar war, Futurama and the grandfather paradox, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, alien life, and Star Wars.
  4. Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel by Michio Kaku. nerd scienceKaku’s examination of the impossible is divided into three levels of impossibility: class one, class two, and class three impossibilities. Class one impossibilities examined include force fields, invisibility, phasers and death stars, teleportation, telepathy, psychokinesis, robots, extraterrestrials and UFOs, starships, and antimatter and anti-universes. Class two impossibilities are faster than light, time travel, and parallel universes. Finally, the class three impossibilities are perpetual motion machines and precognition. The epilogue examines the future of impossibility. This perspective is interesting because it means the author is examining things not from a position that these feats are actually impossible, but from a position of more openmindedness regarding these topics. Plus, the very first chapter starts with a Star Trek reference. In the section on invisibility we learn about “metamaterials” that may mean invisibility is closer than we thought. Check this book out and discover how close we really are to making the impossible, possible. In some areas at least!
  5. Popular Culture and Philosophy. Series published by Open Court Publishing Company. According to the publishing company’snerd science website, these “volumes present essays by academic philosophers exploring the meanings, concepts, and puzzles within television shows, movies, music and other icons of popular culture.” So far there are 81 published, full-length volumes of Popular Culture and Philosophy, with at least 12 more in the works to be released in 2014 or 2015. The next volume to be published in the series is Jurassic Park and Philosophy: The Truth is Terrifying, coming out in June 2014. This volume discusses topics such as the idea what “life will find a way” and examines the implications and possibility of bringing back extinct animals in reality. Previously published volumes are on topics such as The Simpsons, The Matrix, Buffy, LOtR, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Superheroes, Monty Python, The Undead, South Park, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, The Legend of Zelda, Transformers, Supervillains, World of Warcraft, Anime, Manga, Zombies and Vampires, Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes, Neil Gaiman, The Walking Dead, Dungeons and Dragons, Planet of the Apes, and Futurama. Obviousy, there are many, many more. Those are just the nerdiest! For the full list, visit their website here. If you have an idea for a volume that hasn’t previously been done, email the series editor, George Reisch at to suggest your topic. Personally, I would like to see a volume called BioShock and Philosophy, so if you see that one pop up in the future, you can credit it to me!
  6. The Cartoon Guide to Statistics by Larry Gonick and Woollcott Smith
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A page out of The Cartoon Guide, from the Amazon book preview.

This cartoon guide really is what it’s advertises. It is a full-length, 230 page book about statistics that is done entirely in comic format. The page to the left is just an example of what some of the explanations might look like. This book, despite it’s comic format, really does explain “all the central ideas of modern statistics.” There are chapters on data description, probability, random variables, distributions, sampling, confidence intervals, hypothesis testing, comparing populations, experimental design, and regression. Due to the comic nature of the book, all of these statistical ideas are presented in a very visual format. In other words, this is a great book for visual learners who are interested in getting a grasp on the simple concepts in statistics. If this type of book works for you, additional books in this series are: The Cartoon History of the Universe, The Cartoon Guide to Physics, The Cartoon Guide to the Computer, The Cartoon Guide to Genetics, The Cartoon History of the United States, and The Cartoon Guide to (Non) Communication.



**Featured image credit goes to XKCD, another great source for learning while being entertained.

Brittany DeSalvo

Brittany is a Cincinnati native with a degree in Professional Writing from Purdue University. She currently manages the front office of an urgent care, works as an apprentice divemaster at a SCUBA shop, and freelance edits, as well as doing a lot of editing for and contributing to this site. In her free time, Brittany enjoys SCUBA diving, spelunking, reading, cuddling cats, and recently, attending conventions. If you're a fan, please add me on Facebook! =]


    Phaedrus Layne

    I’m completely on board with your reviews of “The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets” and “Popular Culture and Philosophy.” The first is great if you’re a dork about math and The Simpsons, and the second is awesome in general– most pop-culture philosophy books seem to lack substance or do a poor job of connecting the dots, but this one does not disappoint (plus, it’s part of an anthology of different authors– lots of bite-sized pieces!) You could read the entire series (it’s the nerdy reader’s dream come true) and not get bored with any of them, and the Philosophy one is no exception.

    I would only quibble with you on the last book, just from the vantage point of someone with a B.S. in Mathematics and a few classes in graduate mathematics and statistics. I’ve looked a dozens of cartoon/comic style math books that claim to make concepts accessible, and I found that this one doesn’t explain the basic concepts _at all_, especially butchering the idea of confidence intervals and p-values. I remember that the most important statistical idea of all, the Central Limit Theorem, was treated with barely the significance it merited, and dangerously flirted with being a wholly inaccurate treatment of the subject. When reading about the Central Limit Theorem in this book, be aware that population density and distribution normalizes to the limit at the peaks, and is convergent toward the limit– there have to be a very, very large number of observations in order to “trust” the data at the tails of a graph. The book basically suggests that the model is valid at all stages regardless of sample size, density, and variance… which goes against the whole intent of the Central Limit Theorem. At other points, the comics and text just jump right in to the middle of an equation without saying where it came from or what we are assuming about the variables.

    While the cartoons are witty and funny (and a few were really sexual, so it’s not for the kids), the book is probably better for someone who already has a foundation of statistics and wants to either review or supplement it with another text. I’m not sure this is a good book to start out with– although there is a “Manga Guide to Statistics” that is fun, accessible, and rigorous, and also the Idiot’s Guide for someone that doesn’t want lots of comics or pictures– both are really solid and do a good job (although the Manga book is _so much_ more of a fun read… we want pictures!)


    Reminds me of the textbook I had for Physics class: ‘Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics’ by Tom Rogers. It dissected all of the stunts or events (such as an alien spaceship blowing up the White House in ID4) in movies and explained why this could or could not happen based on physics. Pretty interesting read, although it totally ruined the movies for me. Now when I start to grumble, my son yells at me, “Gosh, mom, it’s just a movie!”

    I think I’m going to read ‘The Physics of Superheroes’ next and see how fast I can ruin that for him…


      The Physics of Superheroes actually explains how some of the physics in comic books is accurate, or how it could be accurate. So you won’t get to ruin superheroes for him quite as much as you did movies!

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