A Quartet of Science Nonfiction Tales That Will Make You Explode

Need some nonfiction distraction? Check out these four new nonfiction books about everything from growing up as a Dungeons and Dragons geek to coming of age as a genetic mutant.

If you need dose of science sensationalism, or just a hot fact injection, we're here for you with these four terrific books.

The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons, and Growing Up Strange, by Mark Barrowcliffe (Soho)
A British novelist and comedian, Barrowcliffe was a Dungeons and Dragons obsessive throughout his teen years, a time when he speculates that he should have been getting drunk and hitting on girls. Instead, he jokes, he became "a wanker." Funny and extremely self-depreciating, Barrowcliffe tells the story of his misspent youth battling imaginary monsters with his male friends, and getting beaten up (sometimes badly) by jocks. His most basic premise - that playing D&D ruined his childhood - will probably annoy gamers who know there's a positive side to role playing games. But Barrowcliffe admits that his experiences were specific and personal, and that's where this book gets intriguing. Because his other premise is that D&D is a kind of distilled version of the social conditioning that turns all boys into "wankers" who would rather compete in a fantasy world than form intimate relationships in the real one. The Elfish Gene begins as a kind of anti-nerd rant, but winds up being a lot more than that.

Death from the Skies! These Are the Ways the World Will End . . ., by Philip Plait (Viking)
Author Plait is the creator of the brilliant and addictive blog Bad Astronomy, so it's no surprise that he's written the most entertaining astronomy book of the year. Each chapter is devoted to some kind of astronomical disaster that could destroy Earth, and begins with a chillingly convincing description of how the disaster would unfold. Black holes invade the solar system, solar flares kill electrical power grids in the dead of winter, gamma rays from a nearby supernova fry the ozone layer, and (in the most fanciful chapter) self-replicating alien space probes turn Earth into raw materials for more probes. After Plait scares your socks off with these stories, he explains the science behind them: How gamma rays work, what black holes do when they meet other gravitational fields. If you like your astronomy lessons full of stories about how Earth could be destroyed, you need this book.

Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero, by E. Paul Zehr (Johns Hopkins University Press)
Becoming Batman takes the same tack as Death from the Skies, explaining the science behind compelling tales of death and destruction. Except in Zehr's obsessive, charming book, the destruction is all from superheroes fighting each other. A neuroscientist who studies muscular movement - and a serious Batman fan - Zehr answers definitively whether a real human being could become Batman just through physical training. He asks weird questions you never thought about, such as what Batman's range of motion might be, how fast he could throw punches, and what kinds of spinal damage he might sustain from injuries he gets in the comics. There is really nothing more awesome than reading a book that cites obscure neuroscience journals in the same sentence with citations to obscure Batman comics. Becoming Batman is a terrific introduction to the science of kinesiology (movement), and a fun way to learn more how much we can change our capabilities through physical training alone.

Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell us About Development and Evolution, by Mark S. Blumberg (Oxford University Press)
Eminent neuroscientist Blumberg offers a strangely poetic analysis of new theories of evolution, based on biological mutations from conjoined twins to people born without limbs. Like many evolutionary theorists, he's interested in developmental biology - what happens to creatures between the time of conception, to the time they are born. What forces act on and in an embryo to make it grow into an anomaly? And are these anomalies actually evolution in action, nature tinkering with lifeforms to see what works? Blumberg explores the complicated ways our genes tell our bodies to grow, using weird examples from the history of human and animal mutation. If you're interested in the science behind the macabre, this book will thrill you. It's also a must-read for anyone who wants to know more about a cutting-edge area of evolutionary theory.