Back in 2011, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the host of the revamped Cosmos, completed a Reddit Ask Me Anything.
In-between sharing his thoughts on time travel (not happening, kids, sorry), where in space he’d travel (far enough away to look back at the dinosaurs roaming Earth), and who he really is (just someone who is in love with the Universe), the science communicator explained which books he thought should be read by every single intelligent person on the planet.
Here’s his list:
- The Bible, “to learn that it's easier to be told by others what to think and believe than it is to think for yourself.”
- The System of the World by Isaac Newton, “to learn that the Universe is a knowable place.”
- On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, “to learn of our kinship with all other life on Earth.”
- Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift, “to learn, among other satirical lessons, that most of the time humans are Yahoos.”
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine, “to learn how the power of rational thought is the primary source of freedom in the world.”
- The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, “to learn that capitalism is an economy of greed, a force of nature unto itself.”
- The Art of War by Sun Tsu, “to learn that the act of killing fellow humans can be raised to an art.”
- The Prince by Machiavelli, “to learn that people not in power will do all they can to acquire it, and people in power will do all they can to keep it.”
According to Tyson: “If you read all of the above works you will glean profound insight into most of what has driven the history of the western world.”
The list went pretty viral, with science enthusiasts and thinkers everywhere aiming to complete the list. But since then, Tyson has also spoken to the New York Times Sunday Book Review about some additional literary recommendations.
And when it comes to book that have had the most impact on him, he lists One, Two, Three… Infinity by George Gamow and Edward Kasner and James Newman’s Mathematics and the Imagination as seminal during his childhood.
“For me, at middle-school age, they turned math and science into an intellectual playground that I never wanted to leave,” he told the New York Times.
Importantly, for parents of younger kids who want to get their children interested in science, he recommends On the Day You Were Born, by Debra Frasier. “I’m often asked by publishers whether I will ever write a science-based children’s book. My answer will remain no until I believe I can write one better than Frasier’s."
But, he added, “Kids are naturally interested in science. The task is to maintain that innate interest, and not get in their way as they express it.”
Adults sometimes need more work, however. When it comes to the one book he’d required the present to read, Tyson recommended (appropriately) Physics for Future Presidents by Richard A. Muller, because, let's face it, physics is the basis of all science. “And all of engineering derives from the laws of physics themselves,” said Tyson. “Failure to understand or invest wisely here will doom a nation to economic irrelevance.”
But he wouldn’t let Obama off that easily: “I’d like to believe that the president of the United States, the most powerful person in the world, has time to read more than one book.”
And if the president does, we all do. Let’s get reading.