For decades, Bill Gates made billions in technology. Now he’s spending that money on fighting disease and climate change.
It’s no wonder the man loves science.
Over the years, Gates has recommended a number of science-related books to the public. Some deal with the environment, others with the cosmos, and others with stopping tiny biological invaders.
Here are some of his favorite titles.
‘Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words’ by Randall Munroe
Munroe, the mastermind behind the xkcd web comic, published a book in 2015 that explained pieces of modern technology using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language.
Gates said that it’s a “brilliant concept” because if “you can’t explain something simply, you don’t really understand it.” One of Gates’ favorite explanations is why microwaves (“radio boxes”) cook frozen foods unevenly:
When you put iced food in a radio box, after a while, parts of it start to turn to water. But since radio boxes are really good at heating water, those parts start to get hot really fast. They can even get so hot they start turning to air—before all the ice is even gone!
‘The Gene: An Intimate History’ by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Genome science can hardly be considered a topic of mainstream interest, but Gates says Mukherjee manages to capture its relevance to people’s daily lives. He seeks to answer big questions concerning our personalities and what makes us, us.
“Mukherjee wrote this book for a lay audience, because he knows that the new genome technologies are at the cusp of affecting us all in profound ways,” Gates wrote.
Mukherjee is what Gates calls a “quadruple threat.” He’s a practicing physician, teacher, researcher, and author.
‘The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future’ by Gretchen Bakke
“The Grid” is a perfect example of how Bill Gates thinks about book genres the way Netflix thinks about TV and movies.
“This book, about our aging electrical grid, fits in one of my favorite genres: ‘Books About Mundane Stuff That Are Actually Fascinating,'” he wrote in 2016.
Growing up in the Seattle area, Gates’ first job was writing software for a company that provided power to the Pacific Northwest. He learned just how vital power grids are to everyday life, and “The Grid” serves as an important reminder that they really are engineering marvels.
“I think you would also come to see why modernizing the grid is so complex,” he wrote, “and so critical for building our clean-energy future.”
‘Seveneves’ by Neal Stephenson
After a science-fiction dry spell of more than a decade, in 2016 Gates picked up “Seveneves” on a friend’s recommendation, and he says he’s grateful for it. “The plot gets going in the first sentence, when the moon blows up,” he wrote.
But that’s only the beginning. The world soon learns the entire species is doomed: In two years’ time, a cataclysmic meteor shower will destroy all life on the pale blue dot. It’s up to humanity to send as many spacecraft into orbit as possible with the hope of escaping the apocalypse.
“You might lose patience with all the information you’ll get about space flight,” Gates wrote, “but I loved the technical details.
‘The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years’ by Sonia Shah
Malaria has become one of the Gates Foundation’s top priorities over the last several years. The disease claims about 430,000 lives per year, while more than 220 million people carry the disease worldwide.
Gates calls Shah’s book “probably the best choice” if you only have time to read one book on the subject.
“The book was published in 2010, so it’s not totally up to date (most notably, we’ve made progress with rolling out bed nets since then),” Gates wrote in 2014. “But it’s a great overview of malaria, its impact, and the solutions to it.”
‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ by Yuval Noah Harari
We weren’t always the only species of human being on Earth. Roughly 100,000 years ago, there were actually six varieties of people, but homo sapiens were the only ones who made it to today. How come?
“Both Melinda and I read this one,” Gates said, “and it has sparked lots of great conversations at our dinner table. Harari takes on a daunting challenge: to tell the entire history of the human race in just 400 pages.”
But Harari doesn’t dwell on the past. He looks toward a future in which genetic engineering and artificial intelligence make our definition of “human” even more fluid.
From Gates: “I would recommend Sapiens to anyone who’s interested in the history and future of our species.”