Of the many books sent to Scientific American for possible review, some stood out as being especially appropriate for holiday gifts. They were unusually intriguing or unusually beautiful, most often both.

Top pick: America in Space: NASA’s First Fifty Years
foreword by Neil Armstrong. 480 photographs. Published in collaboration with NASA
to launch the celebration of its 50th anniversary. Abrams, 2007

Beautifully reproduced on heavy matte paper in an exuberantly sized book (roughly 11 x 15 inches), these are not your usual space photos. Many have never been published, and all seem chosen for a sense of fun, novelty, and joy of life. Even the few old favorites convey new or amusing information—in a famous group portrait of the first seven astronauts, for example, we learn that Deke Slayton and John Glenn wear work boots spray-painted silver.

Among the many rare shots, the astronauts pose in 1963 while honing their survival skills in the Nevada desert, wearing outfits they fabricated under the strong influence of the popular film Lawrence of Arabia.

The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter
by James R. Chiles. Bantam, 2007 ($25)
Profiles of the many helicoptrians who created this amazing contraption.

Storm Chaser: A Photographer’s Journey
by Jim Reed. Abrams, 2007 ($42)
Chronicles remarkable floods, geomagnetic storms, the landfall of hurricanes.

Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding
by Scott Weidensaul. Harcourt, 2007 ($25)
Obsessive ornithologists from Audubon to today’s “competitive” birders.

Cartographia: Mapping Civilizations
by Vincent Virga and the Library of Congress. Little, Brown, 2007 ($60)
More than 200 maps and their accompanying stories, from a 1500 B.C. cuneiform tablet to a 2001 map of the human genome. At the left, a globe from a World War II poster aimed at Middle Eastern allies of the U.S.

Very Special Relativity: An Illustrated Guide
by Sander Bais. Harvard University Press, 2007 ($20.95)
The fundamental concepts of Einstein’s theory in a beautifully graphic book.

Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race
by Richard Rhodes. Knopf, 2007 ($28.95)
A gripping account of the standoff between the superpowers.

Discovering the Solar System
by David W. Hughes and Carole Stott.
Barron’s, 2007 ($29.99)
Includes a solar system mobile and an inter­active wall chart.

text by Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu.
Photographs by Patrick Gries.
Seven Stories Press, 2007 ($65)
A project from the Natural History Museum of Paris to demonstrate the reality of evolution through stunning photographs of animal skeletons and brief explanatory essays.

The Rough Guide to Genes and Cloning
by Jess Buxton and Jon Turney.
Rough Guides, 2007 ($16.99)
The Rough Guide technique for unfamiliar lands applied to unfamiliar subjects.

The World without Us
by Alan Weisman. St. Martin’s Press, 2007 ($24.95)
Easily the most fascinating environmental book of the year.

Talking Hands: What Sign Language
Reveals about the Mind
by Margalit Fox. Simon & Schuster, 2007 ($27)
Discovering the basic ingredients of language in a remote village where everyone uses sign language.

Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography
by Janet Browne. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007 ($20.95)
Part of the Books That Changed the World series, by an acclaimed Darwin biographer.

How to Photograph an Atomic Bomb
by Peter Kuran. VCE, 2007 ($39.95)
A quirky combination of awesome (as in  “shock and awe”) photographs and technical details about how they were taken.