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Page through the Guinness Book of World Records and you’ll learn that a lot can happen in 24 hours.

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In the archive

An email from my younger self

In 2008 I wanted a bunch of science textbooks. Not much has changed since then.

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Recently I was telling a friend about Weather for Dummies. This was not unusual—it’s actually one of the first books I recommend to anyone who wants to understand the weather and how it’s affected by climate change.

After that conversation, I started wondering when I got my own copy of Weather for Dummies. I searched through old emails and was amazed to learn that it was more than 14 years ago!

In the fall of 2008, I had transitioned from being full-time at Microsoft to full-time at the Gates Foundation. After decades of focusing maniacally on software, I finally had the time to get a better grounding in physics, chemistry, biology, and other sciences, which would help me in my work on health, education, and climate change. I was also just curious about all these subjects for their own sake. So I looked around for the best books and read as many of them as I could find. Weather for Dummies was one of 25 titles that I chose.

It took a while, but I eventually made it through all the books. Although there were many good ones, here are three in addition to Weather for Dummies that I especially recommend:

The Atmosphere, by Frederick K. Lutgens and Edward Tarbuck. This one was first published in 1979 and is now in its 14th edition. (Redina Herman joined as a third author sometime after I got my copy.)  Although it’s intended as a textbook for a college-level course, it’s quite accessible for anyone who’s motivated to learn about how the Earth’s climate works. It covers precipitation, air pressure, storms, air pollution, and much more and uses colorful illustrations to explain complex subjects. (Available for rent or purchase from the publisher, Pearson.)

Physical Geology, by James S. Monroe, Reed Wicander, and Richard Hazlett. Like The Atmosphere, Physical Geology is a college textbook that can also stand on its own. Part of the joy of reading it is that you get into subjects you probably learned about in elementary school—like plate tectonics and volcanoes—but in way more depth, which makes them even more interesting. There are some helpful ties to climate change, such as a chapter on glaciers (which are retreating dramatically as the Earth warms), and some amusing asides, like a page on the geology of the British Crown Jewels. (Available used on Amazon.)

Planet Earth, by John Renton. I appreciate this book for two reasons: because it’s fascinating on its own, and because it introduced me to John Renton as a teacher. After reading Planet Earth, I watched his series of video lectures, Nature of Earth: An Introduction to Geology, on The Great Courses. Renton was a professor at the University of West Virginia and was just so good at making geology interesting. Through his writing, he helps you see the physical world around you in a different way. (You can find Planet Earth on Amazon and watch Nature of Earth on The Great Courses or Wondrium.)

I’m glad I did these deep dives. Although I’m not a scientist, I draw on a basic grasp of sciences all the time. Knowing something about the weather and geology helps me with Breakthrough Energy’s work on climate change. Knowing some chemistry and biology helps me with the foundation’s work on new medicines and vaccines.

There’s always more to learn. More recently, I’ve gained a lot from reading a diverse set of books and authors including Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert, On Immunity by Eula Biss, The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee, and Eradication by Nancy Stepan. Vaclav Smil’s books are always phenomenal. And I recently read Mukherjee’s newest book, The Song of the Cell, which is about how understanding cells is key to improving human health.

But these days I’m not just reading about science. I make sure to look at lots of other kinds of books too, including novels, histories, and biographies. A couple months ago I even let myself goof off by reading a murder mystery! I doubt my younger self would approve, but it’s fun and educational to branch out.