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November 29, 2012 / RA

25 gifts for geeks

Last year, Stephanie asked me for geeky gift ideas for her brother, and I e-mailed her very long list. Between being married to a geek and being one in my own right, I’m always on the lookout for smart, funny gifts for nerdy loved ones. Here are the 25 most successful items I’ve given or received in the areas I’m most familiar with: math, chemistry, writing and literature, and puzzles and games.



1. The Colossal Book of Mathematics, by Martin Gardner: One of JG’s math-geek friends introduced him to this collection of Scientific American columns, and I bought it for him right away. The book is full of interesting, readable essays, and JG keeps it on his desk at school. Martin Gardner is a great author to investigate for good math reading in general.

2. Flatland, by Edwin A. Abbott: A student came to JG because his class was assigned to write a book report on a book that was recommended to them, and JG recommended this one. If math has a canon, I think this book would be on it. In The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon Cooper even uses the book as an imaginary vacation spot.

3. Fermat’s Enigma, by Simon Singh: This book is about a math riddle that confounded mathematicians for a very long time, and it’s written in a sort of mystery style. There are appendices for further discussion of some of the math concepts, but it’s altogether a very enjoyable read.

4. The Math Book, by Clifford A. Pickover: This is a grown-up picture book about 250 math milestones over the years. Each topic gets a big, 2-page spread with gorgeous illustrations, and it’s lovely.

5. Binary clock: I can’t read this thing, but darn it if it doesn’t look cute and high-tech. It also sits on JG’s desk at school and dazzles the nerdlets.

6. Pi bottle opener: The first time one of our friends was at our house, he pointed to the bottle opener and asked, “What’s the significance of the big pi?” And I said, “The significance is that JG is a big geek, but the real significance is that it opens bottles.” And, hello, a solid steel pi is awesome on its own. I originally got ours from Think Geek, but it’s no longer available there.

7. Pi, Be Rational tee: I got this shirt for JG as a “yay, you finished grad school!” present, but let’s be honest: the wordplay was really a gift for me.



1. Uncle Tungsten, by Oliver Sacks: This is the memoir of neurologist Oliver Sacks (probably most well-known as the author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat), who grew up in England in a large family made up almost entirely of scientists in a time when you could just buy radioactive material from local suppliers, no questions asked. I love this book so very much.

2. The Poisoner’s Handbook, by Deborah Blum: I listened to this book on audio after finding it connected to Uncle Tungsten in the “people who liked this book also liked this one” section at Amazon. And, hey, I did! It’s the nonfiction account of the rise of forensic medicine and toxicology during Prohibition. People couldn’t drink legally, so they made their own alcohol, poisoned themselves (and others), and the New York City medical examiner’s office had to figure out how to ascertain cause of death by previously undetectable substances. Very fascinating.

3. The Disappearing Spoon, by Sam Kean: This collection of anecdotes about various elements is entertaining and probably one of the more widely accessible books of its kind that I have read. It’s fun to read about how the elements and even more fun to try and guess the effect of them throughout the stories.

4. The Elements, edited by Theodore Gray and photographed by Nick Mann: This is another grown-up picture book, but it focuses on each of the periodic elements. It is beautiful.

5. Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements” download: If you have never heard the elements set to the lightning-fast “Major-General’s Song” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, then I insist that you take the 90 seconds and do so now. I’ll wait. … Okay! Wasn’t that awesome? Now picture my 70-something college chemistry professor singing along to every single word. Even more awesome! It’s also the song that Sheldon Cooper launched into when he got drunk before giving his award acceptance speech.

6. Science tee: I don’t see elements for heating, cooling, or stirring in this apparatus, so I haven’t figured out what the point is, but! This tee is super soft, and when worn with a cardigan and glasses, gives off the precise nerdy girl impression I wish to cultivate.

Writing and Literature

Writing and Literature

1. On Writing Well, by William Zinsser: This is my very favorite book about the craft of writing.

2. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott: And this is my second favorite book about the craft of writing. They are so completely different from each other, but they’re both great.

3. Eats, Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss: And this is my favorite of the “cranky grammarian” genre. My mother-in-law gave this to me years ago, and I still love it.

4. Scout, Atticus, and Boo, by Mary McDonagh Murphy: When my local Borders closed, I went and scavenged every possible book I could that looked slightly interesting, and this was one I grabbed without much foreknowledge. My mother-in-law loves To Kill a Mockingbird, and she taught it to high school students for a fair number of years, so I thought this collection of interviews with famous people about the book would be up her alley. It was! She loved it, and it made her want to read the novel again.

5. Just My Type, by Simon Garfield: I would not call myself a typophile, but it was fairly amusing to read about the history of type and all of the controversies therein. It’s weird, but I wish it had been more rigorous; my favorite chapters involved figuring out the science behind legibility. There was all this talk about humanizing digitally produced type and making it feel warm, but what did that mean? What made one type warmer than another? But still! Very interesting.

6. Thesaurus tee: I mean, what’s not to love? Thesaurus Rex!

7. Grammar posters from The Oatmeal: JG got me this set of posters as a gift (when it was a mere 4-pack!), and I love them in our office. They are large and in charge and CORRECT.

Puzzles and Games

Puzzles and Games

1. Word Freak, by Stefan Fatsis: This is one of my top universal book recommendations, and almost everyone likes it. Fatsis goes into the weird world of competitive Scrabble, and it’s fascinating. Reading this book made me a better Scrabble player but also a Scrabble snob. Read at your own risk!

2. Scrabble Protiles: And if you get caught up in the Scrabble snobbery, get your own set of professional tiles. They’re smooth to the touch with no indentations so that your opponent can’t “braille” and cheat.

3. The New York Times Crossword Puzzles calendar: JG loved having a supply of crossword puzzles to work on, and even if you don’t get very far on them, you look very smart!

4. Puzzlemaster Decks, like this one: These puzzle decks, edited by Will Shortz, are handy for car rides or waiting in line, and we’ve found that they are challenging but doable, and there aren’t “tricks,” like that the baseball player was blind or that Wanda was a fish. Apparently, you can also get them for Kindle, and that seems pretty nice.

5. The Game of Y: This is a strategy game where you try to make a “Y” out of your pieces by forming branches that touch each of the 3 edges of the board. I am terrible at it, but JG delights in pummeling his students with this one. It’s a rarer game, but if you’re able to find a set, it would be great for a strategy lover.

– – – – –

If these items wouldn’t appeal to your local geek, here are the sites I frequent to find clever gifts, basically in order of priority:

If you still can’t find something that your nerdy loved one would love, let me know! I love a gift-hunting challenge.


  1. Saskia / Nov 29 2012 10:00 am

    This is great! I especially like that you accomodate all kinds of geeks, not just the science ones. I’ve bookmarked a lot of your suggestions for future reference.

    • RA / Nov 29 2012 10:14 am

      Oh, yes! I am a firm believer that you can be a geek in many areas, illustrated awesomely in this Venn diagram. I could think of a lot more subject areas — like movies, video games, wine, or art — but I’m not as well-versed in them, so I didn’t include them here.

  2. stephanie / Nov 29 2012 10:13 am

    I still go back and refer to the email you sent me with all the geek gifts last year. It’s fantastic! I may have to get a few of these crossword and scrabble gifts for my mom this year.

    I know I’ve told you this a million times, but one of my big regrets for not actually being a math teacher or professor is that I don’t get to have a classroom full of dorky books and posters and a drawer full of cheesy math pun t-shirts.

  3. Audrey / Nov 29 2012 10:54 am

    That Thesaurus shirt is amazing. I can think of so many people in my life who would love it.

    Tim has a binary watch that he wore for about 6 months before he remembered that he hates wearing watches, even cool nerdy ones. I feel like it requires too much work to determine what time it is, but I can appreciate how some people would enjoy it.

  4. Chrissie / Nov 29 2012 6:04 pm

    Oh my goodness, this is quite possibly my favorite gift guide ever. You have outdone yourself – thank you! I’m definitely saving this for future reference (for me, and my nerdy loved ones). I’ve actually been searching for something for my uncle, who is a total computer geek (as is my husband; also, video games) – any ideas in that realm? Also, this is probably totally random, but my uncle collects pinball machines as well and I’ve been wracking my brain for something pinball related… if anything of that sort even exists, that is. If you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them; otherwise, thank you for this awesome list!

  5. Leah / Nov 30 2012 7:19 am

    Love this list! wish I hadn’t ordered all Matt’s birthday gifts. I suppose I do still have Christmas to buy for. Is it okay to buy him 4 kajillion books? Disappearing Spoon is the only one we have off this list, so we definitely need more geek books.

    Also, if you haven’t read it already, Bill Bryson’s _A Short History of Nearly Everything_ is awesome. His travel works are great too. Oh, and he has a fabulous history of English (title says something about the mother tongue) that I think you’d love to. I’m totally a Bill Bryson shipper, obvs.

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