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5 Books Bill Gates Says You Should Read This Summer

Science and sci-fi, on math, energy, and humanity.

5 Books Bill Gates Says You Should Read This Summer

Photo: Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

When he's not funding malaria vaccines and toilets that produce clean water, Bill Gates finds time to read interesting books (and to tell us what he's reading). Last December, he told us about a book that explains very complicated things in simple language, and about a book showing how "mindset" affects learning.

And now he's back with another list: a little light summer reading as the season approaches and we all head to the metaphorical beach (or wherever it is you like to go). Typically, Gates's new suggestions contain plenty of science and technology (and, more unusually, some science fiction) and plenty of monster ideas. (They also usually contain some books by women, something Gates seems to have missed in summer reading planning, but which we can offer some other suggestions for). Here are Gates's five choices:

The Vital Question, by Nick Lane

Gates says he was "blown away" by this book by British biologist Nick Lane (so much so he sought out a face-to-face meeting). Lane explores the tiny energy movements within all cells, showing how this energy is key to explaining why some organisms remained simple, like bacteria, and some grew into complex organisms, like human beings. The vital question is why only one species became complex like we did: Was this a freak event or could it be repeated? "It’s not just theoretical," Gates says. "Mitochondria (the power plants in our cells) could play a role in fighting cancer and malnutrition. Even if the details of Nick’s work turn out to be wrong, I suspect his focus on energy will be seen as an important contribution to our understanding of where we come from."

Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

"The plot gets going in the first sentence, when the moon blows up," Gates writes of this one. "People figure out that in two years a cataclysmic meteor shower will wipe out all life on Earth, so the world unites on a plan to keep humanity going by launching as many spacecraft as possible into orbit." It sounds like something out of an Elon Musk business plan. But actually it's a sci-fi novel from a fellow Seattle native. "Seveneves inspired me to rekindle my sci-fi habit," Gates says.

How Not to be Wrong, by Jordan Ellenberg

Ellenberg, a math professor at the University of Wisconsin, says math is useful in ordinary life every day. It's not something you learn at school and then instantly can put behind you. You need math to understand electoral politics or the Massachusetts lottery (that is, why you should never play it) and Ellenberg introduces us to many of the founding principles. "The writing is funny, smooth, and accessible—not what you might expect from a book about math," Gates says. "If the stories he tells add up to a larger lesson, it’s that "to do mathematics is to be, at once, touched by fire and bound by reason"—and that there are ways in which we’re all doing math, all the time."

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari

Spanning 400 pages, this book traces the entire history of mankind. It looks at why our version of humanity, Homo sapiens, won out against other human species, including Homo neanderthalensis (the neanderthals) in Europe and Homo erectus, in Asia. The answer, he says, was our cognitive abilities: about 70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens underwent a "cognitive revolution." "I think many readers will find the final section of the book especially stimulating," Gates writes. "Harari turns more philosophical as he writes about our species today and how we might live in the future. He wonders how artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and other technologies will change our species." Plenty to digest on that beach.

The Power to Compete, by Hiroshi Mikitani and Ryoichi Mikitani

Gates includes a book about Japan as his last choice (he has a "soft spot" for the country). The Power to Compete is by a father-and-son team and looks at how to restore Japan's economic fortunes after years in the doldrums (Ryoichi Mikitani, an economist, died in 2013; Hiroshi Mikitani is an internet entrepreneur). Gates agrees about the need for Japan to bring more women into its economy, for more Japanese to learn English, and for its companies to be more innovative. "The Power to Compete is a smart look at the future of a fascinating country," he says.

See the whole list here.

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