Books about physics (or related subjects) for middle school age girls?
December 3, 2015 10:37 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for books that either explain concepts in physics or encourage an interest in physics topics that are likely to be accessible and interesting for ~13 year old girls who are keen on science. What are the contemporary equivalents of "A Brief History of Time" and "Einstein's Dreams" for kids today? Related fields are welcome.

A friend asked me for very specific gift-giving recommendations and I realized I had nothing to offer. I can think of a dozen titles that deal with computing, maker culture, or philosophy, but none that are really about the physical sciences. Searching the usual engines hasn't helped.
posted by eotvos to Education (25 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
It's not going to teach you concepts or anything like that, but when I was a 13-year-old girl interested in physics, I loved Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman. It's like catnip for nerdy kids.
posted by thetortoise at 10:52 PM on December 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

(Although I think there may be sexist stuff in there that has aged poorly; it's been years since I read it. But if anyone can think of a modern equivalent combining science and humor, that would be a great gift.)
posted by thetortoise at 10:54 PM on December 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

I saw this at a comic shop today and thought it looked interesting, Introducing Relatively A Graphic Guide. There is an entire series, maybe check out reviews and see if any for what you're looking for.
posted by lepus at 11:30 PM on December 3, 2015

Best answer: Another nerdy girl reporting in, having loved Feynman as a teenager while also recognizing some of the gross sexism -- the one that stuck in my head was an anecdote where he overhears some women talking about knitting argyle socks, and being gobsmacked that these women's brains are capable of comprehending such things as geometry! Now, I was a bit older than 13 (maybe 15ish?) and had some awesome female role models, so I mostly just brushed it off as just being some old-people garbage. But it is something to consider.

Not specific to the physical sciences, but the first thing that came to mind was xkcd's What If (the book based on the blog) -- might not be 100% in her age range, but the scenarios are certainly interesting (I have, on occasion, needed to entertain groups of nerdy preteens and found that browsing the What If blog while chatting about the ideas works quite well.)
posted by btfreek at 12:01 AM on December 4, 2015 [5 favorites]

Definitely the Cartoon Guide to Physics!
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:01 AM on December 4, 2015

How bout Gödel, Escher, Bach
posted by grobstein at 12:08 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seconding What If! Or how about Stuff Matters, really fun new book on materials science. Not really physics but Longitude comes to mind as well as being really interesting on problem-solving without being too long or technical. Marcus Chown's books might be a good fun place to start on modern physics.

I was a nerdy girl turned off of physics for a decade by reading Feynman so yeah, milage does vary..
posted by Erasmouse at 1:44 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I'm now thinking Feynman was a pretty terrible suggestion; however appealing wacky personalities and physics are together, it's not worth her being alienated by the sexism. What If is a great thought, light and readable and very up-to-date.
posted by thetortoise at 2:51 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Not explicitly physics-related, but similar in that it's about where things come from, and why, and how: Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things
posted by unknowncommand at 4:14 AM on December 4, 2015

Best answer: When I was a 13 year old girl interested in physics, I used to steal my older sister's chemistry textbook (and got really annoyed when instead of actually explaining orbitals, it said the quantum mechanics involved was 'beyond the scope of the text').

This is to say that I wouldn't shy away from something a bit technical, if she's up for it. In that vein, N.David Mermin's Space and Time in Special Relativity is a gem that requires only algebra, but does a lovely job of talking about the weirdness of special relativity. If that's too technical, he has written a popular science book, It's About Time, but I haven't read it personally.

Also on the "I haven't read it" list is Lisa Randall's first book, Warped Passages. It certainly got read by a lot of people, even if I wasn't one of them.

I especially like the "What if" suggestion, and also want to suggest that she get pointed to the many, many blogs and youtube channels that do science outreach. A book is great but you can't ask it questions or see it grow over time.
posted by nat at 4:25 AM on December 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh, and since Feynman came up-- yeah, I loved those stories as a high school student. But there is a whole pile of random sexism in there, so I can't recommend it as a one-off gift for a kid of any gender today. (It could be part of a larger conversation about sexism and why we have to fight against it, but that's bigger than just a straightup "hey science is awesome" gift.)
posted by nat at 4:28 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm a copyeditor/proofreader, and last year I worked on a very engaging book called ZOOM by Bob Berman. The subtitle is "How Everything Moves: From Atoms and Galaxies to Blizzards and Bees," and it's all about the relationship between time and motion. I never took physics, but I could understand it all, which makes me think a 13yo who loves science could certainly grasp it. I found it fascinating—for instance, how a GPS works, why a tree falling in the forest when no one's there really doesn't make a sound (per Galileo!), and what Einstein's theory of relativity was actually about.
posted by wisekaren at 4:59 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

There's also nothing wrong with "A Brief History of Time" or "Einstein's Dreams"! Neither one has aged poorly. (But maybe the kid in question has already read these?)
posted by cogitron at 5:01 AM on December 4, 2015

If she wants to know more about theoretical physics, Brian Greene's book The Elegant Universe and Matt Strassler's blog are both well worth reading.
posted by yarntheory at 5:01 AM on December 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: It's not FOR middle-school-aged girls, but when I was a middle-school-aged girl, I read the heck out of From Quarks to Quasars. It explained some really complex physics in easy to understand ways, to the point that when I got to college and attended a physics lecture, I immediately identified a concept as being "that one where the two pennies were together once, and then you take them far away from each other, but when you flip them, they both hit heads at the same time, and tails at the same time".
posted by chainsofreedom at 5:07 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

This might be the edge of "physical science", but I've had several people recommend that I read Longitude, which is a story about solving the navigation problem of longitude by learning to mechanically measure time reliably at sea.

There are also lovely books on mathematical principles (The Simpson's and Their Mathematical Secrets) which might get at some of the more theoretical elements? And ooooh, I see that the Simpson's book author has written a book called Big Bang which is quite well rated.

(On preview, I see I'm seconding Erasmouse's rec for Longitude)
posted by synapse at 5:42 AM on December 4, 2015

I read A Short History of Nearly Everything just a little later in my teens. It's a big book and can be a bear to get through the chapters that don't interest you (cough*geology*cough) but it's very accessible (and doesn't have the aforementioned social issues of Feynman, which was my other pick when I was a teen).
posted by telegraph at 6:22 AM on December 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

Where Does the Weirdness Go? was the first book that got me into (quantum) physics as a 15-year-old girl. The math is very light IIRC. I ended up majoring in physics and absolutely use those concepts every day!

The Amazon price seems high. I would be happy to mail you my copy if I still have it.
posted by ecsh at 6:56 AM on December 4, 2015

There is also a Manga Guide to Physics.

And if you want Feynman without Feynman, Jim Ottovani has a comic/graphic biography of him: Feynman.
posted by carrioncomfort at 9:13 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Carl Sagan's classic book version of Cosmos leans more to natural science in general than physics, but it's always worth reading.
posted by ovvl at 9:44 AM on December 4, 2015

Feynman's QED is a miraculous book: he gives a totally honest, 100% no-lies accurate physical picture of how quantum electrodynamics (and quantum field theory more generally) work in a way that's accessible to just about anyone. It's mind-boggling. (Now he does it by totally ignoring the mathematical machinery that actually lets you, you know, calculate things and make predictions, but still.) It's all physics, as I recall, so much less occasion for the display of Feynman's casual sexism. I can't recommend it highly enough.

The Feynman Lectures on Physics (available for free online: are also fantastic and classics, but less accessible, as they're transcribed lectures from an honest-to-goodness freshman physics course for very, very smart undergrads (or, really, working physicists---the lore is that as the course went on, one saw fewer and fewer freshmen and more and more faculty in the lectures.)

Depending on how much you're willing to shell out, you might buy an advanced textbook or two for her to chew on for the next five-ten years. I'd suggest Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler's Gravitation (the canonical general relativity textbook, very good at giving physical intuition for what's going on---but absolutely requires calculus, and goes down much more smoothly after differential geometry on the level of Do Carmo's Curves and Surfaces), or Townsend's A Modern Approach to Quantum Mechanics (a fairly standard junior-quantum textbook: essentially no mathematical prerequisites, though some prior acquaintance with linear algebra would smooth the path.)

She won't understand either of these any time soon, but that's not the point---beating your head against something as alien as general relativity or quantum mechanics for years is a tremendously valuable experience. My parents gave me both of those books when I was about that age, or maybe a bit younger, and I spent hundreds of hours trying and failing to understand them until finally, as an undergrad, I got to where I grokked what they were saying. These failed attempts stood me in good stead when I actually took classes on QM and GR, because I'd already spent so much time trying to really, deeply understand what was going on (as opposed to just getting through the problem sets); it was also very, very satisfying to me to know that I was engaged with the real thing: physics as physicists understood it, as opposed to physics as popularizers dumbed it down for general audiences.

I'd note that if she ends up a physicist, she'll treasure either the Feynman Lectures or Gravitation for a very long time---I (physics grad student) still have the copy of the latter that my parents gave me ten-fifteen years ago on the shelf in my office (and just recently got it signed by Kip Thorne!).
posted by golwengaud at 10:08 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

On re-reading your question, I gather that she's not already obsessed with physics---with that in mind, my textbook suggestion isn't so good. I stand by QED and the Feynman Lectures, though.
posted by golwengaud at 10:12 AM on December 4, 2015

I recommend Chad Orzel's very entertaining How to Teach Physics to Your Dog.

If you want to get a taste, check out his blog. Dude's a funny writer, really knows his shit (he's a professor at Union College), and has a real talent for clarifying and simplifying complex ideas.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:45 PM on December 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

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