Whenever I want to understand something better, I pick up a book. Reading is my favorite way to learn about a new subject—whether it’s global health, quantum computing, or world history. Here are 10 books that helped inform my choices for this year’s list of 10 breakthrough technologies.
by Max Tegmark
Anyone who wants to discuss how artificial intelligence is shaping the world should read this book. Tegmark, a physicist by training, takes a scientific approach. He doesn’t spend a lot of time saying we should do this or that, and as a result, Life 3.0 offers a terrific baseline of knowledge on the subject.
by Vaclav Smil
I’m a huge fan of everything Smil writes. He’s skeptical that meat and dairy alternatives like those discussed in this issue will make a dent in global dietary habits. We might disagree on that particular point, but I think Smil has smart things to say about how to feed the world without destroying the planet.
by Ed Yong
I’m fascinated by microbes, and the human gut might hold the key to fixing all sorts of medical issues. I was particularly interested by Yong’s account of how the bacteria that live in our digestive systems might be manipulated to prevent malnutrition.
by Siddhartha Mukherjee
This Pulitzer Prize–winning “biography” of cancer is a beautifully told account of the progress made in fighting the disease over the last century. Some of the scientific advances that have resulted have led to other breakthroughs, like the vaccines included in this year’s breakthrough technologies list.
by Katherine Boo
Boo’s deeply reported narrative of life in a Mumbai slum might seem like an odd choice for a list of books about technology. But she offers perhaps the clearest look I’ve seen at the world’s sanitation challenges. This one is essential reading for anyone hoping to reinvent the toilet.
by Yuval Noah Harari
Harari describes a bleak future without sickness, hunger, and war—but where godlike elites and super-intelligent robots consider the rest of humanity to be superfluous. I’m more optimistic than he is about the chances of averting such a dystopia. If you’re looking to tackle tomorrow’s challenges, he offers some great food for thought.
by Steven Pinker
In my opening essay for this issue, I write about how innovation is increasingly aimed at improving quality of life. Pinker explains why in Enlightenment Now (which happens to be my favorite book). He looks at 15 different measures of progress to explain how and why the world is getting better.
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by David MacKay
If you’re interested in learning where energy comes from, how it is used, and what challenges are involved in switching to new sources, I can’t recommend this book highly enough—and it will help you get more out of the next book on my list.
by Vaclav Smil
Smil convincingly argues that our present-day energy infrastructure will persist. He and I share a belief that nuclear power, which can use existing infrastructure while also reducing carbon emissions, will be an important electricity source for decades.
by William Rosen
For understanding how innovations change the world and evolve over time, Rosen’s comprehensive history of the steam engine is as good a book as you will find.