You can learn a lot about what makes a brilliant mind tick by looking at the books on their bedside table. Beyond reading research in their field, the most famous and successful scientists take the time to read books about every subject imaginable.
We compiled a list of book recommendations from a handful of illustrious minds by combing the web for quotes, checking out personal blogs, and just asking them directly. The picks below come from popular scientists including author and television personality Bill Nye, surgeon-turned-writer Siddhartha Mukherjee, and globe-trotting primatologist Jane Goodall.
The books they’ve recommended range from high fantasy, like Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” to canonical, like Plato’s seminal work “The Republic.”
Here are 15 books that brilliant scientists consider must-reads:
Jane Goodall: “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
Jane Goodall is a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
Goodall famously read the books to her son while studying chimpanzees in Gombe, Tanzania in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She even named a precocious chimpanzee “Frodo” after the trilogy’s main character.
She was also a fan of the movies and told W Magazine that “The Fellowship of the Ring” is one film that “really sticks with me.”
Carl Sagan: “The Immoralist” by Andre Gide
Carl Sagan, who died in 1996, was a famous astronomer and the host of the original “Cosmos” television mini-series. (Neil DeGrasse Tyson, whose book recommendation is also on this list, remade the series in 2014.)
Sagan was extremely well read, even in college. The website Brain Pickings obtained a copy of Sagan’s college reading list, which showed that the astronomer sped through a number of powerful works of fiction and nonfiction in his free time while studying at the University of Chicago.
Andre Gide’s “The Immoralist” appeared on that 1954 reading list. The 1902 novel explores the life of a lapsed academic as he travels from France to French-occupied Algeria.
It’s an artistic tale of colonization, impulses, and the human condition. Gide won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1947.
Carl Sagan: “The Republic” by Plato
Sagan also put Plato’s “The Republic” on his personal reading list when he was a college student.
One of the world’s most influential works of political theory, Plato’s text is the foundation of much of Western philosophy (and a sometimes daunting assignment for many college freshmen).
Plato’s book is written as a dialogue with Socrates and evaluates differing notions of justice and morality.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: “On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin’s seminal work exploring the theory of evolution is a text that popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks everyone should read.
Tyson said in a Reddit Ask-Me-Anything thread that Darwin’s book will help you “learn of our kinship with all other life on Earth.”
“On the Origin of Species” is considered the foundation of the field of evolutionary biology, and popularized the concept of evolution through natural selection.
Bill Gates: “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders
While not a scientist by formal training, Gates’ impact on the fields of technology and public health – through his work at Microsoft and the Gates Foundation – cannot be understated.
An avid reader, Gates releases a summer reading list each year. This year, he wrote on his blog that George Saunders’ novel “Lincoln in the Bardo”was one of the “most fascinating” books on his list. The novel won the prestigious 2018 Man Booker Prize.
“I thought I knew everything I needed to know about Abraham Lincoln, but this novel made me rethink parts of his life. It blends historical facts from the Civil War with fantastical elements-it’s basically a long conversation among 166 ghosts, including Lincoln’s deceased son. I got new insight into the way Lincoln must have been crushed by the weight of both grief and responsibility.”
Bill Nye: “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance
Bill Nye is a fan of J.D. Vance’s autobiographical work, “Hillbilly Elegy.”
Vance’s book details his experience growing up poor in rural Ohio. He became a marine, went to Yale Law School, and now works as a venture capitalist. Vance’s memoir seeks to explain what life is like for the working poor and how that relates to the current political climate in the US.
“People with strong and often inconsistent values feel disenfranchised and often don’t act in their own best interest,” Nye wrote about the book in Vulture. “I hope J.D. Vance’s story will help us learn to work together and improve the quality of life for all our citizens.”
Oliver Sacks: “Madam Curie” by Eve Curie
Marie Curie, famous for her investigations into radioactivity and the discovery of the elements polonium and radium, is one of the most well known scientists of all time.
It’s only natural, then, that famed neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks found her story enlightening.
Written by Curie’s daughter, “Madam Curie” discusses the elder Curie’s life and passion for scientific inquiry.
Sacks wrote in his diary (according to Brain Pickings):
“I was particularly moved by the description in Eve Curie’s book of how her parents, restless one evening and curious as to how the fractional crystallizations were going, returned to their shed late one night and saw in the darkness a magical glowing everywhere, from all the tubes and vessels and basins containing the radium concentrates, and realized for the first time that their element was spontaneously luminous.”
Siddhartha Mukherjee: “Absurdistan” by Gary Shteyngart
Mukherjee, as you may expect, is well read. He’s a huge fan of writer Gary Shteyngart.
Of his experience reading Shteyngart’s book “Absurdistan”- which is set during the fall of a fictional ex-Soviet Republic – Mukherjee told The New York Times: “That terminally annoying guy who sits with his nose in a book and smirks through a flight? I was that guy.”
Mukherjee added that he’d most want either Shteyngart or David Sedaris to write a short profile of his life.
Jared Diamond: “Child of the Jungle” by Sabine Kuegler
Jared Diamond, an anthropologist, is the author of the wildly popular book “Guns, Germs, and Steel.”
Diamond spent much of his career working in Papua New Guinea, and told The New York Times that Sabine Kuegler’s book “approximates an account of Western society through the eyes of a New Guinean.”
As the child of German missionaries, Kuegler grew up among the Fayu tribe of Papua New Guinea as one of the few white people the tribe had ever encountered.
Her autobiographical work describes the culture shock she felt when she left the forest to attend boarding school in Europe at the age of 17.
Diamond wrote of the book:
“Europe was as much of a shock to Sabine as the New Guinea jungle is to a Westerner. Through Sabine’s words, we experience what it is like to encounter traffic lights, trains and strangers for the first time. By Fayu standards, the variety of chocolates in Europe is wonderful, but the way that Europeans treat each other is not wonderful. This book gives a view of Western life from a fresh perspective shared by no Westerner.”
Jared Diamond: “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy
Diamond has also spoken highly of Tolstoy’s classic “Anna Karenina.”
He told The New York Times that it’s the best love story he’s ever read, “even though the love goes sour and the book has a sad ending.”
“Anna Karenina,” which was published in installments between 1874 and 1877, is not an uplifting tale, but it’s one of the classic pieces of literature from the 19th century. It has generated four ballets, six stage plays, 10 operas, and 16 films, according to Judith Armstrong, an honorary associate professor at the University of Melbourne.
The novel starts with this famous line: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Steven Pinker: “Factfulness” by Hans Rosling
Steven Pinker is a psychologist and the author of “Enlightenment Now” – one of Bill Gates’ two favorite books of 2018 so far.
Pinker and Rosling have both earned Gates’ admiration because they take an optimistic view of the present and future.
A doctor and statistician by training, Rosling argues in his book that people are collectively taking an overly emotional view of the world. Using statistics, Rosling shows how humanity is constantly improving based on birth rates, life expectancy, and the gender wage gap.
Jennifer Doudna: “She Has Her Mother’s Laugh” by Carl Zimmer
Jennifer Doudna is a renowned biochemist and cell biology expert at the University of California, Berkeley.
Doudna is known for her work co-inventing CRISPR gene-editing technology, and was recently granted a patent for the use of CRISPR-Cas9. So it’s perhaps not surprising that she told Business Insider she recommends Carl Zimmer’s newest work, “She Has Her Mother’s Laugh”.
In the book, Zimmer, one of the world’s best science journalists, explores the ongoing revolution in genetic technology and the concept of heredity: what gets passed on from generation to generation.
Doudna said the book gives a “wonderful perspective on the science of heredity along with reflections on the profound opportunities and challenges of technologies that can influence personal genetics.”
Michio Kaku: The “Foundation” Trilogy by Isaac Asimov
Physicist and futurist Michio Kaku is a big fan of science fiction writer Isaac Asimov.
Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy centers on the fall of the fictional Galactic Empire, which consists of millions of planets settled by humans across the Milky Way galaxy.
Kaku wrote in The Guardian earlier this year he was “fascinated by Asimov’s gripping saga of the rise and decline of a galactic empire.”
Elon Musk has also said that Asimov’s trilogy was an influence for his career trajectory.
Atul Gawande: “My Struggle” by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Atul Gawande, is a surgeon, public health researcher, and writer. He was recently selected to be chief executive of the health care venture created by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase.
Gawande is a big fan of the Norwegian memoirist Karl Ove Knausgaard.
He told The New York Times that he was “hypnotized” by Knausgaard’s six-part autobiography, “My Struggle.”
“The immersive detail – whether it’s five pages about viewing his father’s body at a funeral home or fixing breakfast one morning – makes it feel as close as you can get to actually experiencing another person’s life,” Gawande told The Times.
Atul Gawande: “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel
Gawande has also sung the praises of Hilary Mantel, a British writer of historical fiction.
Gawande told The New York Times that Mantel is one of his favorite writers.
Wolf Hall won the prestigious Man Booker prize in 2009. It’s a fictional portrayal of Thomas Cromwell’s rise in the Tudor Court of 16th century England. In 2012, Mantel won the Booker prize again for the second installment of that story, which continues chronicling the lives of Cromwell, Henry VIII, and Anne Boleyn. The third installment in the series is still in the works.
Gawande told The Times he has little interest in historical fiction, but that “Mantel has that same Tolstoyan ability to make the odd and faraway worlds her characters inhabit feel like they matter to us.”
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