Bill Gates
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Recommendations by Bill Gates

Bill Gates's Review:

The Poor Need Aid, Not Flawed Theories


The science writer Matt Ridley made his reputation with books like The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature and Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters. His latest book,The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves is much broader, as its title suggests. Its subject is the history of humanity, focusing on why our species has succeeded and how we should think about the future.

Although I strongly disagree with what Mr. Ridley says in these pages about some of the critical issues facing the world today, his wider narrative is based on two ideas that are very important and powerful.

The first is that the key to rising prosperity over the course of human history has been the exchange of goods. This may not seem like a very original point, but Mr. Ridley takes the concept much further than previous writers. He argues that our success as a species, as opposed to earlier hominids, resulted from innate characteristics that allowed us to trade. Not long after Homo sapiens emerged, we were using rare objects, like obsidian blades, far away from the source materials needed to produce them. This suggests that large numbers of commercial links were established even at the hunter-gatherer stage of our development.

Mr. Ridley gives many examples of how exchange allowed groups to thrive, by enabling them, for example, to acquire fish hooks or sewing needles. He also points out that even the most primitive human groups today are open to exchange. I've always thought this openness was surprising, considering the risks involved, but Mr. Ridley convincingly describes its adaptive value.

Exchange has improved the human condition through the movement not only of goods but also of ideas. Unsurprisingly, given his background in genetics, Mr. Ridley compares this intermingling of ideas with the intermingling of genes in reproduction. In both cases, he sees the process as leading, ultimately, to the selection and development of the best offspring.

The second key idea in the book is, of course, “rational optimism.” As Mr. Ridley shows, there have been constant predictions of a bleak future throughout human history, but they haven’t come true. Our lives have improved dramatically—in terms of lifespan, nutrition, literacy, wealth and other measures—and he believes that the trend will continue. Too often this overwhelming success has been ignored in favor of dire predictions about threats like overpopulation or cancer, and Mr. Ridley deserves credit for confronting this pessimistic outlook.

Having shown that many past fears were ultimately unjustified, Mr. Ridley finally turns his “rational optimism” to two current problems whose seriousness, in his view, is greatly overblown: development in Africa and climate change. Here, in discussing complex matters where his expertise is not very deep, he gets into trouble.

Mr. Ridley spends 14 pages saying that everything will be just fine in Africa without our worrying about negative possibilities. This is unfortunate and misguided. Is his optimism justified because things always just happen to work out? Or do good results depend partly on our caring and taking action to prevent and solve problems? These are important questions, and he doesn’t answer them.

In discussing Africa, Mr. Ridley relies on critics who say, essentially, "Aid doesn't work, hasn't worked and won't work." He cites studies, for instance, that show a lack of short-term economic benefit from aid, but he ignores the fact that health improvements, driven by aid, have been a major factor in slowing population growth, which has proven, in turn, to be critical to long-term economic growth. I may be biased toward aid because I spend my money on it and meet with lots of people who are alive because of it, but even if that were not the case, I would not be persuaded by such incomplete analysis.

Development in Africa is difficult to achieve, but I am optimistic that it will accelerate. Science will come up with vaccines for AIDS and malaria, and the “top-down” approach to aid criticized by Mr. Ridley (and by the economist William Easterly) will fund the delivery of these life-saving drugs. What Mr. Ridley fails to see is that worrying about the worst case—being pessimistic, to a degree—can actually help to drive a solution.

Mr. Ridley dismisses concern about climate change as another instance of unfounded pessimism. His discussion in this chapter is provocative, but he fails to prove that we shouldn't invest in reducing greenhouse gases. I asked Ken Caldeira, a scientist who studies global ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science, to look over this part of the book. He pointed out that Mr. Ridley celebrates declining air pollution emissions in the U.S. but does not acknowledge that this has come about because of government regulations based on publicly funded science, which Mr. Ridley opposes. As Mr. Caldeira rightly observes, “It is a wonder of development that our economy can grow as air pollution diminishes.” What is true of the U.S. case, I’d suggest, can be true of the world as a whole as we deal with the challenges posed by climate change.

The Rational Optimist would be a great book if Mr. Ridley had wrapped things up before these hokey policy discussions and his venting against those he considers to be pessimists. I agree with him that some people are overly concerned with potential problems, and I hadn't realized that this pessimism was so common in rich countries over the last several centuries. As John Stuart Mill said in 1828, in a quote from the book that I especially enjoyed: “I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.”

The most obvious instance of excessive pessimism in Mills’s era was the Communist Manifesto. In one of history’s great ironies, Karl Marx used the profits from the German textile mills of Friedrich Engel’s father to support the writing and distribution of a political philosophy based on pessimism about capitalism.

Pessimism is often wrong because people assume a world where there is no change or innovation. They simply extrapolate from what is going on today, failing to recognize the new developments and insights that might alter current trends. For too long, for instance, population forecasts have ignored the possibility that population growth would ease as the world became better off, because people who are wealthier and healthier do not feel the need to have so many children. (For more on this issue, see the excellent presentations on the Gapminder website of the development expert Hans Rosling.)

A lot of the rhetoric about sustainability implicitly assumes that we will exhaust our natural resources, as though there will never be any substitution of one commodity for another in the future. But there has always been such substitution. The late economist Julian Simon made a famous wager with the biologist Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb. In response to Mr. Ehrlich’s prediction that population growth would lead to resource scarcity and mass starvation, Simon bet him that the cost of a basket of commodities, including copper, chromium and nickel, would actually decrease between 1980 and 1990. Mr. Simon won the bet because he believed that, despite increased demand, increased supply would win out. And in fact, to take one example, fiber optics soon took the place of copper wire in many communications technologies.

There are other potential problems in the future that Mr. Ridley could have addressed but did not. Some would put super-intelligent computers on that list. My own list would include large-scale bioterrorism or a pandemic. (Mr. Ridley briefly dismisses the pandemic threat, citing last year’s false alarm over the H1N1 virus.) But bioterrorism and pandemics are the only threats I can foresee that could kill over a billion people. (Natural catastrophes might seem like good candidates for concern, but I’ve been persuaded by Vaclav Smil, in Global Catastrophes and Trends, that the odds are very low of a large meteor strike or a massive volcanic eruption at Yellowstone.)

Even though we can't compute the odds for threats like bioterrorism or a pandemic, it’s important to have the right people worrying about them and taking steps to minimize their likelihood and potential impact. On these issues, I am not impressed right now with the work being done by the U.S. and other governments.

The key question that Mr. Ridley fails to address is: What's wrong with worrying about and guarding against threats that might become real, large problems? Parents worry a great deal about their children's safety. Some of that worry leads to constructive steps to keep children safe, and some is just negative emotion that doesn't help anyone. If we all agree to join Mr. Ridley as rational optimists, does that mean that we should stop worrying about trends that might cause problems and not take action to anticipate them?

Mr. Ridley devotes his attention to just two present-day problems, development in Africa and climate change, and seems to conclude, "Don't worry, be happy." My prescription would be, "Worry about fewer things while understanding the lessons of the past, including lessons about the importance of innovation." This might qualify me as a rational optimist, depending on how stringent the criteria are. But there can be no doubt that excessive pessimism may cause problems with how society plans for the future. Mr. Ridley's book should trigger in-depth discussions on this important subject.

Like many other authors who write about innovation, Mr. Ridley suggests that all innovation comes from new companies, with no contribution from established companies. As you might expect, I disagree with this view. He also seems to think that innovation involves simply coming up with a new idea, when in fact the execution of the idea is critical. He quotes the early venture capitalist Georges Doriot as saying that as soon as a company succeeds, it stops innovating. A great counterexample is Intel, which developed over 99% of its breakthroughs after its first success.

Mr. Ridley describes the economy of the future as "post-corporatist and post-capitalist," a silly throwaway phrase. He never explains what will replace all the companies that figure out how to make microchips or fertilizer or engines or drugs. Of course, many companies will come and go – that is a key element of capitalism – but corporations will continue to drive most innovation. It is a dangerous and widespread problem to underestimate the ongoing innovation that takes place within mature corporations.

In his quest to highlight exchange as the key mechanism in the success of our species, Mr. Ridley underplays the role of other institutions, including education, government, patents and science, all of which, especially since the 19th century, have played a central role in the improvements that humanity has experienced. Too often, when Mr. Ridley finds an example that minimizes the contributions of these institutions, he seems to think that he has validated the idea that exchange deserves all of the credit.

I am always amazed by scientific possibilities. Electricity, steel, microprocessors, vaccines and other products are possible only because of our efforts to understand the world and how it works. The scientists and tinkerers who investigate these mechanisms are engaged in a profound process of discovery. Without their curiosity and creativity, no amount of exchange would have produced the world in which we now live.


Capital in the Twenty First Century
by Thomas Piketty, Arthur Goldhammer

Bill Gates's Review:

Why Inequality Matters

A 700-page treatise on economics translated from French is not exactly a light summer read—even for someone with an admittedly high geek quotient. But this past July, I felt compelled to read Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century after reading several reviews and hearing about it from friends.

I’m glad I did. I encourage you to read it too, or at least a good summary, like this one from The Economist. Piketty was nice enough to talk with me about his work on a Skype call last month. As I told him, I agree with his most important conclusions, and I hope his work will draw more smart people into the study of wealth and income inequality—because the more we understand about the causes and cures, the better. I also said I have concerns about some elements of his analysis, which I’ll share below.

I very much agree with Piketty that:


  • High levels of inequality are a problem—messing up economic incentives, tilting democracies in favor of powerful interests, and undercutting the ideal that all people are created equal.
  • Capitalism does not self-correct toward greater equality—that is, excess wealth concentration can have a snowball effect if left unchecked.
  • Governments can play a constructive role in offsetting the snowballing tendencies if and when they choose to do so.


To be clear, when I say that high levels of inequality are a problem, I don’t want to imply that the world is getting worse. In fact, thanks to the rise of the middle class in countries like China, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and Thailand, the world as a whole is actually becoming more egalitarian, and that positive global trend is likely to continue.

But extreme inequality should not be ignored—or worse, celebrated as a sign that we have a high-performing economy and healthy society. Yes, some level of inequality is built in to capitalism. As Piketty argues, it is inherent to the system. The question is, what level of inequality is acceptable? And when does inequality start doing more harm than good? That’s something we should have a public discussion about, and it’s great that Piketty helped advance that discussion in such a serious way.

However, Piketty’s book has some important flaws that I hope he and other economists will address in the coming years.

For all of Piketty’s data on historical trends, he does not give a full picture of how wealth is created and how it decays. At the core of his book is a simple equation: r > g, where r stands for the average rate of return on capital and g stands for the rate of growth of the economy. The idea is that when the returns on capital outpace the returns on labor, over time the wealth gap will widen between people who have a lot of capital and those who rely on their labor. The equation is so central to Piketty’s arguments that he says it represents “the fundamental force for divergence” and “sums up the overall logic of my conclusions.”

Other economists have assembled large historical datasets and cast doubt on the value of r > g for understanding whether inequality will widen or narrow. I’m not an expert on that question. What I do know is that Piketty’s r > g doesn’t adequately differentiate among different kinds of capital with different social utility.

Imagine three types of wealthy people. One guy is putting his capital into building his business. Then there’s a woman who’s giving most of her wealth to charity. A third person is mostly consuming, spending a lot of money on things like a yacht and plane. While it’s true that the wealth of all three people is contributing to inequality, I would argue that the first two are delivering more value to society than the third. I wish Piketty had made this distinction, because it has important policy implications, which I’ll get to below.

More important, I believe Piketty’s r > g analysis doesn’t account for powerful forces that counteract the accumulation of wealth from one generation to the next. I fully agree that we don’t want to live in an aristocratic society in which already-wealthy families get richer simply by sitting on their laurels and collecting what Piketty calls “rentier income”—that is, the returns people earn when they let others use their money, land, or other property. But I don’t think America is anything close to that.

Take a look at the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans. About half the people on the list are entrepreneurs whose companies did very well (thanks to hard work as well as a lot of luck). Contrary to Piketty’s rentier hypothesis, I don’t see anyone on the list whose ancestors bought a great parcel of land in 1780 and have been accumulating family wealth by collecting rents ever since. In America, that old money is long gone—through instability, inflation, taxes, philanthropy, and spending.

You can see one wealth-decaying dynamic in the history of successful industries. In the early part of the 20th century, Henry Ford and a small number of other entrepreneurs did very well in the automobile industry. They owned a huge amount of the stock of car companies that achieved a scale advantage and massive profitability. These successful entrepreneurs were the outliers. Far more people—including many rentiers who invested their family wealth in the auto industry—saw their investments go bust in the period from 1910 to 1940, when the American auto industry shrank from 224 manufacturers down to 21. So instead of a transfer of wealth toward rentiers and other passive investors, you often get the opposite. I have seen the same phenomenon at work in technology and other fields.

Piketty is right that there are forces that can lead to snowballing wealth (including the fact that the children of wealthy people often get access to networks that can help them land internships, jobs, etc.). However, there are also forces that contribute to the decay of wealth, and Capital doesn’t give enough weight to them.

I am also disappointed that Piketty focused heavily on data on wealth and income while neglecting consumption altogether. Consumption data represent the goods and services that people buy—including food, clothing, housing, education, and health—and can add a lot of depth to our understanding of how people actually live. Particularly in rich societies, the income lens really doesn’t give you the sense of what needs to be fixed.

There are many reasons why income data, in particular, can be misleading. For example, a medical student with no income and lots of student loans would look in the official statistics like she’s in a dire situation but may well have a very high income in the future. Or a more extreme example: Some very wealthy people who are not actively working show up below the poverty line in years when they don’t sell any stock or receive other forms of income.

It’s not that we should ignore the wealth and income data. But consumption data may be even more important for understanding human welfare. At a minimum, it shows a different—and generally rosier—picture from the one that Piketty paints. Ideally, I’d like to see studies that draw from wealth, income, and consumption data together.

Even if we don’t have a perfect picture today, we certainly know enough about the challenges that we can take action.

Piketty’s favorite solution is a progressive annual tax on capital, rather than income. He argues that this kind of tax “will make it possible to avoid an endless inegalitarian spiral while preserving competition and incentives for new instances of primitive accumulation.”

I agree that taxation should shift away from taxing labor. It doesn’t make any sense that labor in the United States is taxed so heavily relative to capital. It will make even less sense in the coming years, as robots and other forms of automation come to perform more and more of the skills that human laborers do today.

But rather than move to a progressive tax on capital, as Piketty would like, I think we’d be best off with a progressive tax on consumption. Think about the three wealthy people I described earlier: One investing in companies, one in philanthropy, and one in a lavish lifestyle. There’s nothing wrong with the last guy, but I think he should pay more taxes than the others. As Piketty pointed out when we spoke, it's hard to measure consumption (for example, should political donations count?). But then, almost every tax system—including a wealth tax—has similar challenges.

Like Piketty, I’m also a big believer in the estate tax. Letting inheritors consume or allocate capital disproportionately simply based on the lottery of birth is not a smart or fair way to allocate resources. As Warren Buffett likes to say, that’s like “choosing the 2020 Olympic team by picking the eldest sons of the gold-medal winners in the 2000 Olympics.” I believe we should maintain the estate tax and invest the proceeds in education and research—the best way to strengthen our country for the future.

Philanthropy also can be an important part of the solution set. It’s too bad that Piketty devotes so little space to it. A century and a quarter ago, Andrew Carnegie was a lonely voice encouraging his wealthy peers to give back substantial portions of their wealth. Today, a growing number of very wealthy people are pledging to do just that. Philanthropy done well not only produces direct benefits for society, it also reduces dynastic wealth. Melinda and I are strong believers that dynastic wealth is bad for both society and the children involved. We want our children to make their own way in the world. They’ll have all sorts of advantages, but it will be up to them to create their lives and careers.

The debate over wealth and inequality has generated a lot of partisan heat. I don’t have a magic solution for that. But I do know that, even with its flaws, Piketty’s work contributes at least as much light as heat. And now I’m eager to see research that brings more light to this important topic.


Bill Gates's Review:

A Rational Look at Energy


I have read a number of books this year by Vaclav Smil, a prolific author and professor at the University of Manitoba who has conducted interdisciplinary research on energy, the environment, population, food production and other important topics. Energy Myths and Realities: Bringing Science to the Energy Policy Debate, examines the various predictions that have been made in the past and are still being made about energy use. Most of these predictions are overly optimistic about how quickly things can change and about the effectiveness of particular approaches. Although Smil remains hopeful in the long run, he clearly thinks we will do a better job if we are realistic about the challenges we face.

My favorite Smil book, Creating the Twentieth Century (and its companion, Transforming the Twentieth Century) chronicles the inventions of the last 150 years. It is quite positive because it focuses on innovation and how innovation has advanced society.

Energy Myths and Realities has a more somber tone because it chronicles so many instances of naïve predictions. (Underscoring this point, the book includes a front piece quoting Publius Terentius Afer, a playright in the ancient Roman Republic, who said: “Men believe what they want to believe.”) Some readers may find Smil’s unrelenting criticism of these misguided thoughts a bit tough, but it is important for us to study these mistakes. If we think solving energy problems is easy we will not invest enough to bring low cost power to the poor and we will not take the necessary actions to avoid climate disaster.

I recommend this book to everyone who spends time working on energy issues, not to cheer them up but to help them have a stronger framework for evaluating energy promises. Smil is able to prove that even if we do our best and innovation is amazing, real change will still take at least 20 years. To me, the long lead times and uncertainties involved in bringing new sources of energy online underscore the importance of pursuing many different paths.

Smil brings a strong historical perspective in his books. It is fascinating that in the early 1900s, many observers thought the internal combustion engine would lose out to steam powered cars or electric cars. However, the economics of gasoline with its high energy density and the difficulty of making cheap batteries helped it win out. Rudolf Diesel, who invented the Diesel engine during the 1890s, actually committed suicide in 1913 because he didn’t think his invention would be successful. In fact, it went on to dominate the large marine and truck market within four decades after his death and much later (by the 1990s) it took a significant share of the European automotive market.

I agree with Smil that nuclear-powered electricity may have a significant role to play in the future. (I’m involved in a company—TerraPower—that is working on a type of a fast reactor we expect will have good economics.) But there are many challenges that must be addressed with nuclear around cost, safety, security of materials, and waste disposal. Although I believe there’s a good possibility that innovation can address these issues, we shouldn’t pursue this option alone.

Smil is appropriately tough on the ethanol crowd. This is one energy approach that is unlikely to ever have a significant impact due to fundamental problems. The fact that the U.S. has subsidized this activity at a cost of $5 billion to $7 billion per year—even as it raises the cost of food—is incredible. The U.S. won’t allow foreign ethanol to get the same tax credit, which suggests that the policy is not really focused on the energy benefits of ethanol. A large lobby, which now extends even beyond the corn farmers, manages to keep the policy intact. There are some biofuels approaches that might be better, but even with those there are lots of problems to be solved.

In his other books, Smil opened my eyes to the challenges of many of the new energy technologies by showing their limited energy density. If you compare renewable energy technologies with current power plants fueled by fossil fuels, they are 10 to 100 times less power-dense. This doesn’t mean renewables won’t succeed, but there are a lot of variables to consider, such as weather conditions that affect the predictability of energy generation and the lifespan of equipment.

Smil does a great job explaining why sequestering a large percentage of CO2 emissions won’t ever be easy and is certainly not achievable at large scale in the next several decades. There will be more than 500 billion tons of CO2 generated between 2010 and 2025. This is over 10,000 times more volume than is available in the current experimental carbon sequestration storage projects.

The long term storage challenge will likely require governments to assume responsibility for monitoring and liability. Until a government shows a willingness to do this, I don’t think private industry should risk a lot of money on an effort along these lines. This is a case where the difficulties are understated partly because anyone who has a stake in hydrocarbons may be biased towards this solution since it seems to preserve their current investments, or at least delay any substitution.

Smil is tough on the Gore view that a transition was possible within a 10 year period. He is also very tough on two Scientific American articles that made it seem like it was going to be very easy to switch to renewable sources. I agree with Smil that this thinking erodes the willingness of the public to allow a carbon tax of some kind to be put in place or to fund more basic research and development, which I think is important. I am part of a group called the American Energy Innovation Council that has recommended more government spending on R&D to go along with strong carbon reduction policies.

Smil is careful to point out that energy technologies can’t advance at the rate that microprocessor chips have over the last several decades. To see how different the energy world is from chips and computers, one only need look at the limited improvements in batteries and various types of engines. When people look at the true cost of solar, the challenges of installation and bad weather in the field are often ignored. Smil does a good job of explaining how the figures used for renewable energy installations report peak power output, so you have to divide that by the fraction of the day the energy is available to compare it to plants like nuclear plants that are available over 90% of the time. Because renewables are intermittent, you have to have either a backup way of generating the power and have fully funded that, or you have to have a large scale storage solution which has not been invented and may not be for several decades.

Although Smil focuses mostly on predictions in the energy sector that erred on engineering and cost, we also have to get the regulations and incentives right. It is very difficult to design the right incentives for reliability, transmission, storage and waste. The example of Yucca mountain where the U.S. government promised to solve the nuclear waste problem, spent $9 billion and then cancelled the projects seemingly for political reasons, is concerning. Likewise, it is instructive that the way that the California electricity market was “deregulated” in order to reduce electricity prices actually led to huge price increases. Energy networks involving renewable sources are far more complex than today’s energy networks and any piece that is not handled well leads to a loss of power.

Smil points out that not all projections for the future are overly optimistic. Sometimes a new development like shale gas (natural gas in coal shale formations) comes along and surprises people on the upside. I’m also encouraged by the fact that more engineers and entrepreneurs are working on energy solutions all over the globe than at any time in the past, and they are empowered with better scientific understanding, better modeling tools, and by the ability to share information with each other. Of course, even these positive surprises take decades before they make a difference because of the gigantic scale of the global energy economy.

I don’t view Energy Myths and Realities as a doom and gloom book. It is sobering about the mistakes that have been made but Smil ends by listing a number of lessons that come out of the mistaken predictions of the past, all of which I agree with. I think this book will contribute to better energy policies, which is critically important.


Polio: An American Story
by David M. Oshinsky

Bill Gates's Review:

How the U.S. Battled Polio


Talk to anyone old enough to remember polio epidemics in the U.S., and you will see the fear in their eyes as they talk about those terrible and unsettling times. For decades, no one knew why thousands of children would suddenly be stricken—usually in midsummer—with many dying or left permanently paralyzed.

Today, most of us in the U.S. don’t even think about polio. But if you go to villages in India’s Bihar Province or the northern states of Nigeria, or the southern part of Afghanistan, you will see that very same fear in the eyes of parents who worry that their child might be next.

I’m a dogged advocate for polio eradication and have written about it in many other articles on the Gates Notes. We are very close to ridding the world of this terrible disease once and for all. It will take focus and commitment to get it done, but I am confident we can.

That’s why I’m a fan of David Oshinsky’s insightful book, Polio: An American Story. (I’m not alone here, as it received the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2006.) It is a fascinating account of the search for a vaccine to stop the polio epidemics that swept the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century, and the remarkable efforts that led to its successful eradication from the U.S. and most other countries. Reading Oshinsky’s book a few years ago broadened my appreciation of the challenges associated with global health issues and influenced the decision that Melinda and I made to make polio eradication the top priority of the foundation, as well as my own personal priority.

Oshinsky retraces the steps of researchers trying to puzzle together how to create an effective vaccine. He’s a gifted storyteller who makes complex scientific subjects easy to understand and also captures the mood of a country terrorized by an invisible and little-understood disease. He describes in meticulous but never-boring detail the people and politics associated with one of the most important medical breakthroughs in history.

I found it interesting that the first recorded polio epidemic in the U.S. didn’t occur until 1894, in rural Vermont. By 1908, Karl Landsteiner, a Viennese researcher who later won a Nobel Prize for his discovery of the different human blood types, isolated the poliovirus by injecting monkeys with an emulsion from the spinal cord of a boy who had just died of polio. It was one of several important breakthroughs in the early 20th century battle against killer infectious diseases, including malaria, tuberculosis, diphtheria, typhoid, and syphilis.

In 1916, a polio outbreak in New York City quickly spread to adjacent states. Despite intensive sanitation measures of the kind that had helped control other epidemic diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever, 27,000 people died that summer. In New York City, 80 percent of those who died were under five.

I knew that Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted polio, but did not realize until reading Oshinsky’s book how significant an influence FDR had on the search for a vaccine. He was struck in the fall of 1921 while on a family vacation in Canada. The news stunned Americans, who at the time believed the disease mainly occurred among poor children in slums. FDR was 39 and from a wealthy New York family.

For thousands of polio victims, Roosevelt symbolized that life could go on for those disabled by the disease. He helped found the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, now known as the March of Dimes, which provided aid to victims and funded polio research. I was impressed that even as president, FDR would often respond personally to letters sent to him by other victims. Yet, Roosevelt also went to great lengths—abetted by a cooperative press corps—to hide the fact that he needed leg braces and handrails to stand, and a wheel chair to get around. I can’t imagine an American president being able to do that today, but FDR was greatly admired at a time when the nation was dealing with a world war and the Great Depression. Somehow, he persuaded the media that obscuring the extent of his disability was necessary to reassure the public that he was healthy and capable of holding public office.

I was also fascinated by the media savvy and marketing sophistication of the March of Dimes, which used famous Hollywood actors to get out its message and was the first philanthropic organization to introduce the idea that millions of Americans—not just the wealthy—could play an important role in helping solve big social problems. In 1938, Americans mailed nearly 2.7 million dimes directly to the White House in support of that year’s March of Dimes campaign.

We sometimes take for granted the speed of scientific breakthroughs today. Yet, Oshinky’s book reminded me of the painstaking efforts scientists often must undertake. Forty years after the polio virus was discovered, scientists still didn’t know what caused it. Theories ranged from rotten fruit to houseflies to contaminated milk. They didn’t know the mechanism by which it attacked the central nervous system. They didn’t know if there was just one type of polio, or many. And they didn’t know how to grow poliovirus safely, and in large enough quantities, to produce vaccines.

Also, researchers were divided over whether a “live-virus” vaccine or a “killed-virus” vaccine would be more effective. Most virologists believed a live-virus vaccine would stimulate higher antibody levels in the blood and create a lasting immunity. Advocates of the killed-virus vaccine believed it could be just as effective, and would eliminate any risk that someone receiving an immunization could contract polio.

Jonas Salk, a young researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, was one of those who believed a killed-virus vaccine would work. It had, after all, been effective against cholera, typhoid, and diphtheria. From 1949 to 1951, Salk and his team conducted extensive testing on thousands of monkeys, using samples from human polio victims and from monkeys who had contracted the virus after being injected with the human samples. Salk’s work confirmed what had been suspected but not yet proven—all of the identified and tested strains of poliovirus fit into one of three distinct types.

About the same time, John Enders, a researcher at Harvard, figured out how to grow poliovirus that would be safe and could be mass produced. But scientists were still stymied over how the virus was transmitted and traveled through the body. Several prominent researchers had long believed that it entered through the nose and traveled directly to the central nervous system, bypassing the bloodstream. If that was the case, a vaccine that stimulated antibodies in the bloodstream would have done no good.

Two scientists working independently, Dorothy Horstmann at Yale and David Bodian at Johns Hopkins, upended the prevailing thinking with a breakthrough discovery. Previous researchers had been unable to detect poliovirus in the blood because they were not looking for it soon enough. Horstmann and Bodian discovered that the poliovirus is in the bloodstream for only a brief period of incubation before the body’s immune system creates antibodies that destroy it.

Salk was relentless in his pursuit of a vaccine. He began human trials against the backdrop of the worst outbreak of polio on record in the U.S.—57,000 cases in 1952. By the spring of 1954, more than 1.3 million children had taken part in the largest vaccine trial in history. It took a year for the results to be reported, and when they were, church bells tolled, factory whistles rung, and then-President Dwight Eisenhower—a war hero—broke down in tears.

Although not 100 percent effective, the Salk vaccine was considered a huge success and a great relief for an edgy nation. In 1956, the number of polio cases in the U.S. dropped by 50 percent compared to the year before, and by another 50 percent the following year.

Meanwhile, Sabin was about to undertake the largest medical experiment in world history—a live-virus vaccine administered to 10 million children in Russia. It, too, proved a success. Considered more effective and easier to administer than the Salk vaccine, Sabin’s oral vaccine won out by 1963.

Oshinsky’s narrative ends at about this point, but the quest to completely eradicate polio is still ongoing. In 1987, the World Health Organization launched a global initiative to eradicate polio worldwide. Since that time, about 2.5 billion children have been vaccinated, and the number of polio cases has decreased by 99 percent. Last year there were fewer than 1,500 cases in just four countries—India, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

While this is fantastic progress, the last remaining cases pose a serious danger. If not completely eliminated, polio will spread back into countries where it has previously been eradicated, killing and paralyzing perhaps hundreds of thousands of children.

The foundation is deeply involved in this final push, and I am personally committed to doing what I can to rid the world of this dreaded disease once and for all.


Bill Gates's Review:

Education Reform and Technology


Liberating Learning by Terry Moe and John Chubb is an important book that focuses on how technology will change K-12 education in the United States.

It looks at current efforts to use technology for online learning and to measure achievement. Although it acknowledges that there is a need for a lot of improvement, it sees great possibilities.

In particular it talks about how online learning used in a hybrid way with face-to-face teaching can free up teacher time, support better learning diagnostics, allow for a broader set of courses to be offered, and deliver material in a more engaging way.

It says that since the National Commission on Excellence in Education published the landmark reportA Nation at Risk in 1983, there have been a lot of efforts to reform education, but steps that would have created major change have been blocked.

Specifically, things like teacher measurement, pay for performance, teacher choice, charter schools, and vouchers have only been tried in very limited ways.

One set of early efforts where technology is having an impact is in making courses available through virtual classes. The state-level groups that offer these are called virtual schools, but that can be a little confusing since students can sign up for a few courses from the virtual school while remaining in a normal school for everything else.

About 30 states have virtual schools. The biggest by far is the Florida virtual school with about 100,000 students. Most virtual schools are quite small.

The initial focus is kids in rural areas who can’t get the breadth of courses they want, but it can also be used by kids who want more flexibility, higher quality, or home schooling.

Another phenomenon is charter schools that offer over half of their courses online: 26 of the 40 states that allow charters have these schools. Four states—Arizona, California, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—have over 10,000 students in such schools.

The book talks about two Dayton, Ohio, cyber charters and an early Pennsylvania charter called PACyber. When these schools started in the 1990s, they were true pioneers, and the curriculum and software were not very good. The description of how these schools work today is very compelling.

A key question the book explores is whether the use of technology in education will be blocked in a way that will keep educators from starting up the necessary learning curve.

The authors have seen a lot of attempts at reform blocked or diluted so they don't have any impact. They are articulate about how powerful the status quo is in our political system and how someone pushing for change can be stopped in many ways. They give examples of tactics unions use to block experimentation and hold things back. The book offers charts showing that virtual schools, cyber charters, and rich data systems are less developed in the more unionized states. I agree with the authors about how tough it is to change the status quo, but the challenge is not just the unions.

Parents are also very conservative about new approaches in education, particularly parents whose kids are in an honors enclave inside a public school that is weak overall. The authors are clear that many of the experiments have problems when they start up. There is always a question of where new approaches should be tried initially.

I agree with the authors that technology is special and although it will take time it cannot be blocked. Clayton Christensen in his book Disrupting Class makes the same point even though his analogy to business use of technology is not a good comparison with a political process like schools.

In the case of technology there are special areas where it is clearly needed and these can be used to get it up and going.

Another critical point the authors make is that countries other than the United States care a lot about high-quality, low-cost education, so they will be contributing new ideas and content, too. The authors don’t talk enough about technology in two-year and four-year colleges. It would have been interesting to know what issues have slowed technology there. Tighter budgets could help technology since it is more cost-effective in many cases, but the lack of funding will also slow the transition down.

I am fascinated about what can be done to make content really, really great. I love the idea of having the videos of the very best lectures. I want the K-12 equivalent of MIT’s Don Sadoway teaching physical chemistry; or the Feynman Messenger Lectures (now free on a Microsoft site); or the courses available on Academic Earth or the many amazing Teaching Company courses.

I am also interested in how a known framework for what students can learn can be used to connect lots of interactive software to do skills assessment.

Online learning can work well for homeschoolers where the parents are very involved. But this creates a budgeting challenge for school districts.

There is a lot of controversy about homeschooling in terms of quality and whether educational budgets should help with it. Since this is part of the bootstrap process for online learning these issues will affect how quickly pure online learning achieves a large user base.

Even more interesting to me than pure online learning is the mixed model where some classes are given using technology but the students have a school that they attend for long hours. This is the model used in the two Dayton schools discussed in the book. The question of what age group and what classes can use this mixed model and how it can save teacher time while providing a broader set of courses and more customized learning is important.

Experimentation is needed to try out different approaches for these mixed models and progress needs to be made to get the curriculum to be very broad and very high quality.

Although I agree with the book that unions have been far too tough in blocking experimentation there still is a lot to be proven in both online learning and teacher assessment.

The acid test I have for teacher assessment is when will the average teacher see it as a plus?

If they see it as unpredictable and scary they will want to stick with the current system. If they see it as predictable, as a tool for helping to get rid of some of the worst teachers, and a path to improvement for people who want to get better, they will embrace it. The book makes it sound like teacher assessment is a very straightforward thing but deciding what to use beyond the test scores is difficult. The unions may tilt toward defending less capable teachers, but if the average teacher thinks that a new assessment approach or a new online approach is a good thing, then unions will back off from protecting its least capable members and let the new approach move ahead. So I believe the unions should allow more experimentation. But the experiments need to demonstrate clear benefits to the average teachers so they are enthused about them.

There are a lot of things I want to learn more about including what is going on with the commercial development of online curriculum. A question I have is: How do we get some very bright people who know education and are knowledgeable about technology involved in helping to drive this forward at full speed?



The Bet
by Rachel Van Dyken

Bill Gates's Review:

An Economist and a Biologist Test a Theory

The year 1981 was a big one in my business life. It was the year Paul Allen and I incorporated Microsoft in our home state of Washington.

As it turns out, 1981 also had big implications for my current work in health, development, and the environment. Right when Paul and I were pulling all-nighters to get ready for the release of the MS-DOS operating system for the brand new IBM-PC, two rival professors with radically divergent perspectives were sealing a bet that the Chronicle of Higher Education called “the scholarly wager of the decade.”

This bet is the subject of Yale history professor Paul Sabin’s new book. The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future provides surprising insights for anyone involved in addressing the world’s “wicked problems.” Most of all, it gave me new perspective on why so many big challenges get bogged down in political battles rather than being focused on problem-solving.

So what was the bet? University of Illinois economist Julian Simon challenged Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich to put his money where his mouth was and wager up to $1,000 on whether the prices of five different metals would rise or fall over the next decade. Ehrlich and Simon saw the price of metals as a proxy for whether the world was hurtling toward apocalyptic scarcity (Ehrlich’s position) or was on the verge of creating greater abundance (Simon’s).

Ehrlich was the country’s, and perhaps the world’s, most prominent environmental Cassandra. He argued in books, articles, lectures, and popular television programs that a worldwide population explosion threatened humanity with “the most colossal catastrophe in history” and would result in hundreds of millions of deaths from starvation and dire shortages not just of food but all types of raw materials.

Simon, who passed away in 1998, was a population optimist. A disciple of conservative University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, Simon believed the doomsayers’ models gave little or no credit to the power of efficient markets and innovative minds for developing substitutes for scarce resources and managing out of crises. He went so far as to claim that population growth should “thrill rather than frighten us.”

At the time of the bet, Simon was a relatively unknown scholar who loved using the eminent Ehrlich as a foil. In public, Ehrlich didn’t even acknowledge Simon by name. Nonetheless, Ehrlich rose to Simon’s bait. “It seemed a small price to pay to silence Julian Simon for ten years,” in the words of Sabin.

Who won the bet? Simon. Definitively. Even as the world population grew from 4.5 to 5.3 billion in the 1980s, the five minerals that were included in the bet—chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten—collectively dropped in price by almost half. Ehrlich begrudgingly made good on the bet. But to this day he still does not concede that his predictions of Mathusian horrors have been off the mark. Similarly, he does not acknowledge that the discipline of economics has anything of value to contribute to discussions of population or the environment.

Even though I had gone back in recent years to read Ehrlich’s Population Bomb (1968) and the Club of Rome’s intellectually aligned book Limits to Growth (1972), The Bet was a stark reminder to me of how apocalyptic a big part of the environmental movement has been. Ehrlich claimed to have science on his side in all of his predictions, including how many people the Earth can feed. He stated as scientific fact that U.S. lifestyles were unsustainable, calling developed countries “overdeveloped countries.”Limits to Growth claimed the credibility of computer modeling to justify its predictions of apocalypse.

Simon was equally extreme in his rhetoric. He was as reflexively dismissive of the discipline of ecology as Ehrlich was of economics. And his sound bites provided great fodder for Ronald Reagan and other conservative politicians eager to push back on the pronouncements of environmental scientists. But history generally has been kinder to his predictions than those of Ehrlich.

We know now that Ehrlich was extremely wrong and that following his scientific certainties would have been terrible for the poor. He floated the concept of mandatory sterilizations. He pushed aggressively for draconian immigration policies that, if enacted, would have kept out much of the foreign talent that came into the U.S. over the past three decades and added greatly to the U.S. economy. Ehrlich and his fellow scientists criticized the Green Revolution’s agricultural innovations because, in his view, “we [will] have an even bigger population when the crash comes.”

On population, Ehrlich ignored the evidence that countries that developed economically dropped their birth rate. (The current view is that population will rise only modestly after hitting a bit over 9 billion by 2050.) Granted, population growth is a huge issue in some poor countries, where it creates locally some of the instability and scarcity that Ehrlich foresaw for the entire world. But fortunately, there is strong evidence that if we continue to produce innovative reproductive health tools and make them available to women who want them, and we keep pushing forward on economic growth, there will be fewer and fewer of these places in the decades ahead.

Matt Ridley’s book The Rational Optimist (2010) is probably the best statement today of the Simon case, and Ridley was more careful than Simon was in his claims. Even though I agree with a lot of the book, it too easily dismisses the need to address problems of the poorest, climate change, and the oceans.

The recent Economist special report on biodiversity makes a strong case that economic growth allows us to make environmental concerns a priority. It contrasts the environmental record of the rich countries with that of poor countries to say that economic growth is the best hope for environment protection. All of this suggests to me that we should be wary of broad attacks on economic growth. (The authors of the special report admit that it’s not focused on climate change and mostly leaves aside the mismanagement of the oceans, which is tragic problem that deserves more focus.)

I recommend The Bet to anyone wanting to understand the history of the divisive discussions we have today, especially the stalemate over climate change. Sabin makes a strong case that Ehrlich’s brand of science made it easy for conservative critics to caricature environmentalists as doom merchants and fear mongers who peddle dubious science as a means of advancing their big-government agenda.

And Simon is far from blameless. “Julian Simon and other critics of environmentalism … have taken far too much comfort from extravagant and flawed predictions of scarcity and doom,” writes Sabin. “By focusing solely and relentlessly on positive trends, Julian Simon made it more difficult to solve environmental problems.”

It’s a shame that extreme views get more attention and more of a following than nuanced views. We see this dynamic clearly when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change does its best to be clear and impartial in conveying what is known on the key issues, but both liberals and conservatives make it hard for the public to understand the panel’s nuanced conclusions.

I wish there more people who took the middle ground and who were as prominent as Simon or Ehrlich. So here’s my question to you: What’s the best way to encourage scholars to combine the best insights from multiple disciplines? How can we elevate the status of scientists and spokespeople who refuse the lure of extremism and absolutism? 


Bill Gates's Review:

College Success Rates and a Stronger Workforce

Theodore Hesburgh, the former president of the University of Notre Dame, used to joke that education was one of the few things people were willing to pay for and not get. While that may still be true for some students whose parents are picking up the tab, for many others eager to land a decent job with a future, society needs to do more to ensure that all students get the education and training they need to keep pace with the evolving demands of employers.

In, Andrew Rosen calls for greater relevance, access, accountability and transparency in higher education. He builds a persuasive case that many non-traditional students, such as working adults, parents and those at risk of dropping out, are not well served by traditional institutions. New approaches, he argues, are critical to ensure that more people have the opportunity to obtain college degrees.

As chief executive of Kaplan, Inc., a for-profit educational services company, Rosen offers a prescription that will rankle some traditionalists in academia. But I find his insights truly important for the debate on what needs to be done to improve the success of post-secondary education in America. (Full disclosure: Kaplan is a subsidiary of The Washington Post Company, where my wife, Melinda, served on the board from 2004 to 2010.)

The United States used to lead the world in the percentage of adults with college degrees, but has now fallen to 10th place. That’s partly because we have such a high dropout rate. While more than two-thirds of students who graduate from U.S. high schools attend college or pursue postsecondary training, barely one-third of those will end up getting a degree. Something is clearly broken.

This is especially worrisome because more than half of jobs today require a college education, and that trend will continue. By 2018, the demand for workers with college degrees will exceed the supply of college graduates by an estimated 3 million. Meanwhile, dropouts and workers with only a high school diploma will have an ever harder time finding fulfilling work.

Rosen believes for-profit institutions, such as his own, are part of the solution because they meet the needs of a wide range of students. They do this, Rosen notes, by offering flexible course schedules in the evening and online, and by focusing their curriculum on the classes that students need to graduate and the knowledge and skills that employers value.

Over three decades, for-profit schools added students at more than six times the rate of traditional colleges and universities. However, that growth also sparked controversy over their marketing techniques to attract students and led recently to tougher regulations. The new rules require for-profit education companies to offer programs that prepare students for “gainful employment” so they can pay down their school loans and reduce their ratio of debt to income. Those changes have slowed new enrollments significantly, so it is unclear whether for-profit schools will continue to outpace more traditional institutions of higher education in the future.

Rosen starts his fairly brief and highly readable book with a quick history of post-secondary education in colonial times, when only the sons of wealthy Free Protestant families attended college. Then he describes the country’s embrace of universal secondary education and the benefits of the GI Bill after World War II, which allowed millions of returning veterans to attend college tuition-free.

To accommodate the country’s growing and increasingly educated population, a fledging collection of two-year colleges rapidly evolved in the second half of the 20th century into the current system of more than 1,000 community colleges. Rosen rounds off the historical survey with a look at the growth of for-profit colleges, including schools like the University of Phoenix, and several run by his own company, Kaplan.

Rosen notes that it is much easier for some students to get through college. He calls these students the “automatics”—they include the most talented and reasonably talented students who went to strong suburban or private schools. But they are not the norm.

To better meet the needs of all students, Rosen suggests creating a common yardstick based on seven risk factors identified by the U.S. Department of Education that make students less likely to graduate. Among these are delayed enrollment, no high school diploma, single-parent status and full-time employment while enrolled. Rosen maintains that these risk factors could be used to reasonably compare schools with similar populations and identify those that are doing the best job of helping students graduate and secure good jobs. This approach doesn’t capture all the key elements, in my view, because it leaves out one important factor—whether or not a student has a clear career goal in mind. But more transparency is a good thing.

Many of the four-year public and non-profit institutions are following what Rosen calls the Ivory Tower Playbook. They add expensive non-academic incentives, such as money-losing sports programs and better living facilities, to attract better students, rather than using that money to increase capacity and improve a student’s education. 

He is quite pointed about how the competition to have the best resort-like atmosphere has diverted funds away from the classroom in many schools. And he says these colleges know more about how many kids attend basketball games and which alumni give money than how many students showed up for economics class during the week and which alumni are having a hard time meeting their career goals because of shortcomings in their education.

For Rosen, community colleges follow an All Access Playbook, which is commendable in principle because it allows almost anyone to attend college. But without stronger state support (which is unlikely due to the struggling economy), this broad-access approach is not sustainable and has distracted these colleges from focusing on the quality of learning and reducing dropout rates.

Rosen believes the for-profit postsecondary sector is demonstrating a number of promising approaches in measuring results and improving efficiency in teaching large numbers of students. But he acknowledges that some for-profit schools following what he terms the Private Sector Playbook can fall victim to a short-term focus and, in some cases, fail to exercise adequate oversight.

Rosen has compared criticism of for-profit institutions—which he calls “disruptive innovators”—to the resistance encountered over a century ago by land grant universities, including Cornell and Purdue. Some critics will say that, because Rosen runs one of the for-profit companies, he isn’t as tough on the for-profit sector as he should be. However, I think he does an effective job of explaining what the critics have said about the shortcomings of the sector and how these issues can be handled without overly constraining these institutions. 

Yet, there is more than a little irony in the fact that students from better-off families tend to go to private non-profit schools subsidized by endowments or to public institutions subsidized by taxpayers, while many low-income students end up attending for-profit schools with the least subsidy, which means they must assume proportionately higher burdens of student loan debt. Without question, for-profit schools must do better at graduating students with a degree that is valuable in the marketplace.

For all institutions—public, non-profit and for-profit—better measurement is essential to increasing graduation rates and success in the workplace. I am in radical agreement with Rosen that data can and should be used to motivate schools to improve, and that greater transparency and accountability will encourage students and government funders to support the institutions that demonstrate the best outcomes. We should hold all institutions of higher learning accountable for results, and find easier ways to identify and support the best among them.


Bill Gates's Review:

Understanding Energy Use and Technology


The noted climate researcher Ken Caldeira suggested I read Sustainable Energy - without the hot air by David MacKay. I’m grateful for his recommendation.

The book is available for free at: where you can also buy it in hard copy.

There’s also a great video of MacKay that I really like.

I agree with Ken that this is one of the best books on energy that has been written. If someone is going to read just one book I would recommend this one. It isn’t an easy read but that’s because you learn so much. Even after you read this book you will want to keep it around since whenever you read about a new development in energy technology, the framework in this book will help you understand how important it is and where it fits in.

If someone wants an overall view of how energy gets used, where it comes from, and the challenges in switching to new sources, this is the book to read. The book isn’t a global warming book per se but it shows various ways to change our energy generation so it emits very little CO2.

The book is very numeric which is appropriate. MacKay uses kilowatt-hours-per-person-per-day to discuss everything. He has a great section that explains how articles about energy use different measures like number of households powered and how all these measures obscure the overall energy equation. His use of a common metric is critical to giving the reader a clear understanding of how we might get our energy inputs to match our overall energy needs in the future.

To avoid overwhelming the main text with formulas, MacKay uses the appendix to explain why cars, planes, or houses use as much energy as they do and how to figure out the potential energy from various new approaches like wind and tides.

The focus is on educating the reader rather than promoting a point of view. MacKay’s strongest point is that any plan for the future has to have enough energy sources to meet the demand. He thinks people ought to have a numeric sense of how their energy consumption adds up. He gives a lot of examples of things like the energy used for making grocery store plastic bags that won’t have a significant impact on reducing CO2 but that get far more attention than critical issues like how to dramatically improve the transmission network.

He focuses on the UK in early chapters but then extends that to the rest of the world. You might learn a bit more about British inlets that can be used for pumped water storage and the tides around Britain than you expected to but that is minor.

The book explains all the big categories of energy usage with great clarity and he explains what can be done to reduce usage in all of these areas. In Europe, for example, people use 125Kwh per day per person, including 40Kwh for transportation, 40Kwh for heating and cooling, and 45Khw to generate the 18Kwh of electricity they use each day.

MacKay thinks that new designs and electric engines can reduce transportation to 20Kwh and heating and cooling can be cut to 30kwh per person per day. He leaves direct electrical usage at 18Kwh per person per day since the improvements in areas like lighting will be offset by new uses of electricity. MacKay is very convincing that we won’t see usage fall much more than this despite all the great ideas for efficiency improvements.

Americans use 250Kwh per person per day so there are even more opportunities for efficiency, but still not enough to solve the problem of future energy sources.

The area where there is great uncertainty is what the sources of energy will be in the future. MacKay provides five different scenarios which vary according to how much solar, clean coal, nuclear, or wind they use.

MacKay does a great job of explaining the challenges that come with sources that don’t provide energy on demand 24 hours a day. Whenever you hear someone talk about the power output of a wind farm they are talking about the output during the time the wind blows which is typically one-third of the day. Solar is similar. As long as we are getting a modest amount of our power from these sources, other sources can be adjusted to make the total work out around the clock. MacKay explains that there is no magic storage technology today that would allow you to store extra power for the rest of the day. He talks about how costly and large the storage would be for the UK to get most of its energy from renewable sources.

It is possible that there will be a huge breakthrough in battery technology to help with this problem but it would be unwise to count on that. The scenario MacKay gives where electric car batteries are used for storage doesn’t seem realistic to me since batteries can only be cycled a finite number of times before they have to be replaced and it would take an amazing grid. He doesn’t mention the possibility of using rocks in connection with solar thermal energy plants to enable them to provide power over a 24-hour period.

Society is incredibly dependent on having a reliable power supply. It is easy to stockpile coal at a coal plant. The cost to having the same guaranteed availability for wind and sun would be very high.

MacKay also does a great job of explaining that changing to energy sources that only work well in specific locations requires a lot of investment and permitting for transmission lines. Today’s fuels can be moved from place to place but sun and wind cannot.

MacKay has one chapter focused on global warming and CO2. He talks about a scheme for capturing CO2 from the atmosphere which is worth exploring. I was surprised he didn’t mention geoengineering techniques to delay or reduce the effects of global warming. He also didn’t explain enough about other gases that cause global warming.

As you look at the possibilities for the UK you see that there is a huge question about whether it is reasonable to count on a high percentage of the power coming from the deserts of North Africa using solar photovoltaic or solar thermal technology. It can be done but does it create unaffordable political and reliability risk? The book offers only one plan that doesn’t count on nuclear, clean coal, or acquiring most of the power from a foreign country. Of the five scenarios, I think it is the least realistic since it uses so much wind and requires gigantic levels of storage.

One place where MacKay does have a strong point of view is that the amount of government R&D going into energy is pathetically low. The UK is spending less than £0.2 per person per year. The United States has raised its number but it is still way too low. If people understood that the only way to reduce CO2 emission by 80% is to have a large number of research breakthroughs, then perhaps this would change. Even the most optimistic scenarios for conservation will not get to 80% as long as cars, heating, and electricity generate CO2.

If people think that raising energy prices a little bit or just consuming a bit less will solve this problem, we will never achieve the required reductions. Regulations requiring electricity plants to move to low CO2 emission over a 40 year period would send a stronger market signal to power plant makers than any of the cap and trade systems that are likely to get implemented.

I was thrilled to see a book that is scientific, numeric, broad, open-minded, and well written on a topic where a lot of narrow, obscure, non-numeric writing confuses the public. People need to really understand what is going on and then be part of the process of moving the world to a new energy infrastructure.


Where Good Ideas Come From
by Steven Johnson

Bill Gates's Review:

I picked up Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, with a little bit of skepticism. Lots of books have been written about innovation—what it is, the most innovative companies, how you measure it. The subject can seem a little faddish, but Johnson’s book is quite good at giving examples of how you create environments that can encourage good ideas.

Especially for people in business or education, it’s a worthwhile book. It talks about the institutional structures that facilitate good ideas—how you get lots of people thinking about cutting edge problems, how you put people together in a space where different skill sets and influences can come together, how you make the right kinds of materials available but don’t force a conclusion.

Some books about innovation revolve around the idea that a small number of amazingly smart individuals have had Eureka moments, leading to extraordinary breakthroughs that changed the course of civilization.

But Johnson challenges this view, which I liked: “We have a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings…But ideas are works of bricolage…We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.”

The decision to start Microsoft, for example, wasn’t based on a momentous flash of insight. It was based on incremental developments in a nascent personal computing industry, the fact that Paul Allen and I had access to mainframe computers at the high school we attended, and our hunch about what people could do with computers in the future.

At the foundation, our work in global health, development, and education builds on the great ideas that others have developed over the years in a wide range of fields—global health, international development, agriculture, engineering, scientific research, and public policy.

Johnson focuses on the elements of our cultural environment that foster an atmosphere of innovation, and the recurring patterns that often are at play in bringing great ideas to fruition. He believes that urban environments and technology are potent fertilizers of discovery and invention, and that the connections between people and their ideas are the underlying seed beds of innovation.

The author identifies a number of conditions, or patterns, that enable innovation. One is the “adjacent possible,” a theory first articulated by American scientist Stuart Kauffman. It’s the idea that what is achievable today is defined by the various combinations of events and activities that have occurred prior.

For example, in the 1870s, a French doctor, Stephane Tarnier, saw incubators for chicken hatchlings at the Paris Zoo and hired the zoo’s poultry-raiser to build incubator boxes for premature newborns at his hospital. Other hospitals at the time were using devices to keep babies warm, but Tarnier was the first to conduct research showing how incubators significantly reduced the infant mortality rate, leading to their widespread use in Paris and beyond.

Earlier in the 19th century, a British inventor, Charles Babbage, tinkered with two ideas—a Difference Engine to calculate polynomial functions, and an Analytical Engine, which would have been the world’s first programmable computer. Neither machine was built at the time, but many of the ideas underlying the Difference Engine took hold fairly quickly, leading to the mass production of mechanical calculators. Although the Analytical Engine was a brilliant idea that included many of the key concepts in today’s computers, it was, Johnson suggests, beyond the adjacent possible of the day. Babbage’s design would have required a huge number of mechanical gears and switches, which probably would have made the machine too slow to operate effectively. It took another 100 years for researchers to independently rediscover Babbage’s ideas and apply them using newer technology—vacuum tubes and eventually integrated circuits.

A more recent example of the adjacent possible, Johnson says, is YouTube. If it had been launched 10 years earlier, it would have failed because most people connecting to the Internet were still on slow dial-up connections that could not have handled video sharing. But by the time YouTube launched, many more people had high-speed Internet connections.

Johnson also talks about the importance of “liquid networks” that are flexible enough to facilitate dynamic connections between good ideas, but structured enough to support and hold them. I’m familiar with one of the examples he cites, Building 99 on the Microsoft campus which houses Microsoft Research. To optimize collaboration and creativity, Building 99 was designed so rooms could be easily reconfigured to provide flexible work and meeting spaces. Lots of the walls are covered with whiteboards that allow scientists to gather informally to sketch out ideas whenever inspiration hits. This may not seem revolutionary, but it’s amazing what happens when you open up work spaces in this way versus traditional office cubicles.

A third pattern that Johnson explores is “the slow hunch.” It took Joseph Priestley, an 18th century scientist, 20 years to conclude that plants create oxygen. (Priestly first had an inkling when, as a child, the spiders he trapped in glass jars died.) The core pieces of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection were articulated in his notebooks more than a year before he seemed to fully grasp their significance and published them. I’ve seen this many times at Microsoft and at the foundation. People start with an idea and over time it evolves and becomes clearer.

Serendipity (or what Johnson calls “happy accidents”) accounts for other breakthroughs. He includes dreams, contemplative walks, long showers, and carving out time to read a variety of books and papers that might lead to “serendipitous collisions” of ideas. He mentions the Think Week breaks I’ve taken for many years, where I immerse myself in books and papers that people send me. We expanded who participates in Think Week a few years ago at Microsoft to include the top 50 engineering thinkers. It has definitely led to an exciting exchange of ideas and inspirations that would not otherwise have occurred.

I don’t have space here to cover the other patterns that Johnson talks about, but you can read about them in his book. You can also watch a video of Johnson discussing them at a 2010 TED speech.

All of us have great ideas from time to time. The challenge is how to put more of them into action to help solve the world’s biggest problems. Writers like Johnson remind us that good ideas are most often the result of people building on other’s ideas—either individually or together—and having a fertile environment in which they can prosper.


Bill Gates's Review:

Read Jared Diamond With Me, Part 2

Last week I mentioned I’d be reviewing Jared Diamond’s latest book and invited you to share your thoughts on the book. I wasn’t sure what the response would be. It wasn’t exactly light beach reading, and ten days isn’t much time to find and finish a 460-page book. But I was pleased by how many people responded. Thanks to everyone who weighed in.

A number of commenters hadn’t heard of Diamond before. But I was encouraged by this post from Addison Staples: “I was actually lucky enough as a teenager to be required to read Guns, Germs, and Steel as preparatory reading for AP World History. I was blown away, probably the only book I was ever forced to read in school that absolutely engaged and enlightened me.” That’s great. Every student deserves to be inspired like that.

As for the new book, Andrea wrote that it “is a very good read, in my opinion, but nothing more. It lacks the great enlightenment of the other books” that Diamond has written. I had a similar reaction.

Diamond starts with the premise that human beings were hunter-gatherers for millions of years, and only settled down when we began farming about 10,000 years ago. So most of our genetic selection has been done in a hunter-gatherer environment. He argues that we can learn a lot by studying hunter-gatherer societies in places like New Guinea, where he has spent much of his career. (He uses the term New Guinea to refer to the island that is divided between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.)

He describes several areas in particular, like raising children, dealing with the elderly, and eating well. He doesn’t romanticize these societies, as I thought he might, or make some grand pronouncement that they all do these things better than we do. He just wants to find the best practices and share them.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find much deep wisdom in the lessons that Diamond documentsBut I found the book fascinating anyway.

In part that’s because Diamond has such good anecdotes. There’s one involving a New Guinean nomad who finds a small tree coming out of the ground and becomes convinced it’s a sign of danger. As I read the story, I was sure something bad was about to happen. Diamond eventually concludes that the man was right, but not for the reasons I expected.

At a broader level, The World Until Yesterday made me think about how we have had to overcome some deeply ingrained behaviors in order to develop a modern, interconnected society. As Diamond explains, in a hunter-gatherer society, you trust people in your own group because you know for the most part they share your interests. But when you encounter strangers, you have to assume they’re dangerous. You have a strong incentive to do this: If you don’t, and you turn out to be wrong, they could end up killing you or stealing your food.

Things are different in a modern society. You probably passed by a lot of strangers today without having to figure out whether they might try to kill you or take your lunch. That is a very primal fear we have overcome in order to live in large cities.

Consider how important this has been for global trade and international travel. How many strangers have to do business with each other every day to make the global economy work? Although globalization has been driven by inventions like the jet engine and the standardized shipping container, it wouldn’t be happening unless we were also able to overcome a natural suspicion of strangers. It is another reminder of humans’ amazing ability to adapt.

How did this shift happen? Diamond writes a bit about how on a local level (like for tribes in New Guinea) it’s driven by the need to share scarce resources, such as food. But it’s not really his main point. One book that gets deeper into these questions is The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves,by Matt Ridley. Ridley focuses on trade more broadly and what it took to overcome these very basic barriers to working with strangers. I’d recommend it to anyone who is interested in this area.

I did appreciate a few of the other observations in Diamond’s book. He is convincing in suggesting that we reconsider how much we isolate the elderly. It is a waste to have people with experience and the free time to share it, and lots of young people who would benefit from it, but no way to connect them. This is an area where I think communications technology could still make a big difference.

In short, if you’re only going to read one Jared Diamond book, make it Guns, Germs, and Steel. But if you have a particular interest in what life is like for hunter-gatherers, The World Until Tomorrow is a good choice.

Finally, a number of commenters suggested similar books to Diamond’s. Nobuo Ikeda mentioned The Better Angels of Our Nature, which is one of my favorite books ever and one I think everyone should read. You can find my review hereScott and others recommended Why Nations Fail, which I disagreed with pretty strongly and reviewed here.

Thanks again to everyone who participated in this experiment. I’ll be moving on to some of the other titles on my summer reading list and will post more reviews when I can.


Bill Gates's Review:

The Great Escape Is an Excellent Book With One Big Flaw

The other day I spoke at an employee event at the Gates Foundation. We do these “unplugged” sessions periodically. I open with a few remarks and then spend an hour or so taking questions from the team. I see our senior staff quite often, but these sessions are a great way to connect with the larger group.

I told the staff: If you want to learn about why human welfare overall has gone up so much over time, you should read The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality, by Angus Deaton, a distinguished Princeton economist who has spent decades studying measures of global poverty. It’s quite accessible, and the first six chapters teach you a lot about economics. But the seventh and final chapter takes a strange turn: Deaton launches a sudden attack on foreign aid. It’s by far the weakest part of the book; if this is the only thing you read about aid, you will come away very confused about what aid does for people.

Deaton’s parting shots came as a surprise to me, because it’s clear from the rest of the book that we see the world in similar ways. His first paragraph is dead-on: “Life is better now than at almost any time in history. More people are richer and fewer people live in dire poverty. Lives are longer and parents no longer routinely watch a quarter of their children die.” (I would have cut “almost” from the first sentence, but otherwise I could not agree more.) Picking up on the title of the old Steve McQueen movie, he calls this improvement in human welfare the Great Escape.

I have long believed that innovation is a key to improving human lives. Advances in biology lead to lifesaving vaccines and drugs. Discoveries in computer science lead to new software and hardware that connect people in powerful new ways. Deaton does a good job of documenting how innovations helped spark the Great Escape.

But the Great Escape, Deaton says, “is far from complete.” Innovations reach only those who can afford to pay for them. And that has led to great inequality. The rest of the book examines where this inequality comes from, whether it matters, and what if anything can be done about it.

One of Deaton’s most helpful passages explains how you measure human welfare in the first place. He argues that there’s no single good measure, but health and GDP are the best two that we have. You probably have heard about gross domestic product, or GDP, but you might not know how it’s calculated, how it’s different from gross national product, or why on its own GDP is not a great measure of the quality of people’s lives. Deaton provides a lucid and succinct explanation.

He is also humble about the limits of economic analysis. In this entertaining passage, he goes after economists who make unfounded assertions about economic growth:


Economists, international organizations, and other commentators are fond of taking a few high-growth countries and looking for some common feature or policy, which is then held up as the “key to growth”—at least until it fails to open the door to growth somewhere else. The same goes for attempts to look at countries that have done badly (the “bottom billion”) and divine the causes of their failure. These attempts are much like trying to figure out the common characteristics of people who bet on the zero just before it came up on a roulette wheel; they do little but disguise our fundamental ignorance.


Unfortunately, this humility goes out the window once Deaton starts criticizing foreign aid. After examining the history of GDP in countries that get aid, he concludes that aid doesn’t cause growth. In fact he makes an even stronger claim—that aid keeps poor countries from growing—and says the most compassionate thing we can do is to stop giving it.

In other words, in one chapter, Deaton dismisses people who think they know why countries fail to grow. In the next, he asserts that countries fail to grow because of aid.

Deaton makes another common mistake among aid critics: He talks about foreign aid as if it’s one homogeneous lump. He judges money for buying vaccines by the same standard as money for buying military hardware.

It seems obvious that programs should be measured against their original purpose. Did the program have a good goal, and did it achieve the goal? Instead, Deaton and other aid critics look at, say, aid that was designed to prop up some American industry, see that it didn’t raise GDP in poor countries, and conclude that aid must be a failure.

That’s a shame, because programs that are actually designed to improve human welfare—especially health and agriculture—are some of the best spending that a rich country can do on behalf of the poor. They help the poor benefit from the very innovations Deaton writes about so glowingly. And their success rate is at least as good as the track record of venture capital firms. No one looks around Silicon Valley and says, “Look at all the startups that go under! Venture capital is such a waste. Let’s shut it down.” Why would you say that about aid?

Deaton spends a lot of time on the concern that foreign aid undermines the connection between governments and their people. The idea is that leaders of countries that get a lot of aid will worry more about what their donors think than what their citizens think.

This argument always strikes me as strange. For one thing, many countries—Botswana, Morocco, Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Costa Rica, Peru, Thailand, Mauritius, Singapore, and Malaysia, to name a few—have grown so much that they receive hardly any aid today. Deaton doesn’t cite any evidence that aid undermined their institutions or democratic values. And his over-emphasis on institutions leads him to make sweeping statements like “drugs and vaccines save lives, but the pernicious effects are always there.” I have to wonder what pernicious effects came from eradicating smallpox, and whether these effects could be worse than a disease that killed millions of people every year for centuries.

Deaton is right to point out some problems with aid. For example, too much goes to upper-middle-income countries rather than focusing on the poorest people. More aid can be directed to specific goals like vaccination. And aid shouldn’t be used to replace domestic funding. But I wish he had spent more time than he does exploring better ways to give aid. Most importantly, we need to help develop a system that identifies the goals of every type of aid and makes it easier to measure which approaches work best in various situations.

If you read The Great Escape—and there’s a lot to recommend in it—you should also read something else to balance out Deaton’s negative views on aid. I’ve highlighted a few recommendations in the Other Reviews box at the bottom of this page. They’ll give you a clearer sense of what’s working, what isn’t, and how we can make our efforts even more effective in the years ahead.


Bill Gates's Review:

A Front Row View of the Financial Crisis

The central irony of Stress Test, the new memoir by former U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, is that a guy who was accused of being a lousy communicator while in office has penned a book that is such a good read.

I’m not qualified to weigh in on the accuracy of Geithner’s recollections, some of which have been called into question by those Geithner criticizes. And of course Geithner provides only one perspective; the verdict may evolve as we learn more from other participants in the crisis. But I’ve now read four or five of these first drafts of the history of the Great Recession, and I believe Stress Testrepresents the biggest contribution of the bunch.

While some chapters dive into details that only a true policy wonk could love, I found the entire book very clear and easy to read. Geithner could more than hold his own in an explanatory-metaphor contest with masters like Warren Buffett and the author Michael Lewis. For example:

“Even if we couldn’t prevent an ugly crash, I wanted to explore ways to put ‘foam on the runway.’ ” Or:  “When I saw The Hurt Locker, the Oscar-winning film about a bomb disposal unit in Iraq … I knew I had finally found something that captured what the crisis felt like: the overwhelming burden of responsibility combined with the paralyzing risk of catastrophic failure; the frustration about the stuff out of your control; the uncertainty about what would help; the knowledge that even good decisions might turn out badly….”

Ultimately, Geithner paints a compelling human portrait of what it was like to be fighting a global financial meltdown while at the same time fighting critics inside and outside the Administration—as well as his own severe guilt over his near-total absence from his family.

When I ran Microsoft, I sometimes thought I had a tough job, especially when trying to manage the company and deal with a federal anti-trust trial at the same time. But I came away from this book thinking my job was pretty easy compared with what Geithner signed up for. Unless you’re a soldier on active combat duty, you’re likely to think the same thing.

I can understand why Geithner, who acknowledges how hard it is for him to sit still, felt compelled to take the time to write his own 550-page version of events. Given that he’s still taking intense criticism, he had to be saying to himself, “Cut me some slack here!”

For all of Geithner’s actual or perceived mistakes and the horrible optics of bailouts and bonuses, he and his colleagues at Treasury and the Federal Reserve deserve credit for keeping the world economy from going over the cliff. We easily could have had a devastating depression with breadlines and shantytowns all over the country and, indeed, the world. Not only did Geithner and his colleagues prevent the worst from happening; the financial bailout has now turned a tidy profit for U.S. taxpayers. Bailing out the “too big to fail” banks as well as Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, GM, Chrysler, and all the others netted a surplus of $166 billion. As Geithner accurately puts it, “The financial industry paid for the rescue.”

Yet those facts don’t seem to count for much. Geithner continues to be pilloried by people who seem to have mutually exclusive critiques. He’s viewed by critics on the left as a soulless tool who cared more about bankers than the victims of their greed. Critics on the right seem to believe he’s a raging socialist hell bent on destroying American capitalism.

Logically speaking, both can’t be true. And I can tell you, based on my four or five meetings with him over the years, that neither is. In my view, he’s a smart, humble, non-ideological guy who, contrary to popular belief, had never worked for Wall Street prior to the crash. Perhaps history will determine that he could have done more to bring down unemployment and help more struggling families stay in their homes. But I’m certain he genuinely cares about doing the right thing for Main Street.

While Geithner’s frustration is palpable in the book, he indulges in less credit-taking and score-settling than you find in most Beltway memoirs. And he does a decent job of acknowledging his own shortcomings. Here are some examples: “I wish I had pushed harder to improve the financial system’s ability to withstand a crisis of confidence when I was at the New York Fed.” “Our constant zigzags looked ridiculous.” “It was my own screw-ups that made the inquisition [over errors on his tax returns] possible, and I felt sick that I had put the President-elect in this position.” He is especially unvarnished in his self-criticism of his deficiencies as a communicator (e.g., “My speech … sucked.”)

But he’s unapologetic about the cornerstone of his approach to fighting the crisis. “We provided extraordinary support to the financial system in general and some very poorly managed financial firms in particular,” he writes. “We didn’t do it to help their executives buy fancier mansions and sleeker jets. We did it because there was no other way to prevent a financial calamity from crushing the broader economy.” This explanation passes my sniff test.

During a time of high anxiety and chaos, it’s no wonder that explanations from a lifelong technocrat who has always shied away from public speaking would be no match for the professional loud talkers on radio and cable TV. The reality is, as Bill Clinton once said, “When people feel uncertain, [they’d rather listen to] somebody who’s strong and wrong than somebody who’s weak and right.”

Will this and the other accounts that are sure to come out help policymakers defuse future financial crises?

I hope so. Good books can encourage decision-makers to stop and reflect on brink-of-the-abyss events, weigh the financial and political risks a little differently, and act a bit more proactively when the dark clouds appear once again. All policymakers know there’s a risk that excessive vigilance could gum up markets and slow economic growth. But I think books like this help them see that the risks and pain of being blindsided—left in “shocked disbelief,” as former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan put it—are a real concern too.

To be sure, the politics of fighting financial crises will always be ugly. In Geithner’s words, “Actions that seem reasonable—letting banks fail, forcing their creditors to absorb losses, balancing government budgets…—only make the crisis worse. And the actions necessary to ease the crisis seem inexplicable and unfair.” But it helps if the public knows a little more about the subject—what’s at stake, what the options are, what has worked in similar situations—so that the loud talkers resonate a bit less and the knowledgeable ones a bit more. If Stress Test continues to attract lay readers—and its position on theNew York Times bestseller list suggest it could—I think that can make at least a modest difference the next time around.


Bill Gates's Review:

A Cautionary Tale From Africa

Bono calls the economist Jeffrey Sachs “the squeaky wheel that roars.” To me, Sachs is the Bono of economics—a guy with impressive intelligence, passion, and powers of persuasion who is devoting his gifts to speaking up for the poorest people on the planet. So it was no surprise to me that a journalist would find Sachs to be a compelling central character for a book—and a good way to draw readers into the potentially dry subject of international development.

In The IdealistVanity Fair writer Nina Munk draws a nuanced portrait of Sachs and his Millennium Villages Project (MVP)—a $120 million demonstration project intended to show the world that it’s possible to lift African villages out of poverty through a massive infusion of targeted assistance. It would have been easy, and perhaps more marketable, for Munk to draw a caricature, overly accentuating Sachs’s negative qualities at the expense of his great gifts. But she doesn’t. Munk spent six years researching the book, getting to know Sachs well and living for extended periods in two of the 15 Millennium Villages. She clearly appreciates the importance and difficulty of what Sachs and his team are attempting to do.

Unlike most books about international development, Munk’s book is very readable and not long (260 pages). I’ve told everyone at our foundation that I think it is worth taking the time to read it. It’s a valuable—and, at times, heartbreaking—cautionary tale. While some of the Millennium Villages have succeeded in helping families improve their health and incomes, Munk concludes that the two villages she spent the most time studying­—Dertu, Kenya and Ruhiira, Uganda—have so far not lived up to Sachs’s vision.

Sachs did come to the foundation, asking us to support the Millennium Villages. His pitch was intriguing. He was picking a small handful of villages to be the focus of intense interventions in health, education, and agriculture—all at once. His hypothesis was that these interventions would be so synergistic that they would start a virtuous upward cycle and lift the villages out of poverty for good. He felt that if you focus just on fertilizer without also addressing health, or if you just go in and provide vaccinations without doing anything to help improve education, then progress won’t be sustained without an endless supply of aid.

My colleagues and I had a number of concerns about Sachs’s approach. We questioned his assumptions about how quickly the gains would materialize, what would happen when the MVP funding was phased out, how much governments would contribute to offset the high per-person costs, and how feasible it was to measure progress (given the likelihood that people from the surrounding area would stream into their villages once the MVP aid started flowing). So we decided not to invest in the MVP directly. Instead we funded his interdisciplinary work at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, because we felt it was invaluable to have him focused on the needs of poor countries.

Based on what Munk reports about the MVP, I’m not about to throw stones. We have many projects of our own that have come up short. It’s hard to deliver effective solutions, even when you plan for every potential contingency and unintended consequence. There is a natural tendency in almost any kind of investment—business, philanthropic, or otherwise—to double down in the face of difficulty. I’ve done it, and I think most other people have too. 

So what went wrong? For one thing, the villages that Sachs picked experienced all kinds of problems—from drought to political unrest. For another, the MVP began with an idealistic “Field of Dreams” approach. MVP leaders encouraged farmers to switch to a series of new crops that were in demand in richer countries—and experts on the ground did a good job of helping farmers to produce good crop yields by using fertilizer, irrigation, and better seeds. But the MVP didn’t simultaneously invest in developing markets for these crops. According to Munk, “Pineapple couldn’t be exported after all, because the cost of transport was far too high. There was no market for ginger, apparently. And despite some early interest from buyers in Japan, no one wanted banana flour.” The farmers grew the crops, but the buyers didn’t come.

Of course, Sachs knows that it’s critical to understand market dynamics; he’s one of the world’s smartest economists. But in the villages Munk profiled, Sachs seems to be wearing blinders.

Warren Buffett likes to say, “The rear-view mirror is always clearer than the windshield.” Through that rear-view mirror, we can see that the project didn’t have an economic model that could sustain successes once the MVP dollars ran out. All of the interventions involved—health, agriculture, infrastructure, education, and business seed money—make sense if carried out carefully, over time. But I am surprised by how little Sachs dug into country budgets and that he didn’t work to convince governments to commit to additional taxation to fund more of these interventions domestically. Given his background, he surely excels in that area.

Through the rear-view mirror, we can also see that many of Sachs’s ideas have proved to be exactly right. Munk details his 2007 fight with international aid donors who were refusing to distribute insecticide-treated bed nets for free because they favored a market-based approach where people would pay a small amount for each net. To put it mildly, Sachs didn’t make any friends in the process of advancing his case for free bed nets. Through increasingly ruthless tirades, he wound up alienating potential allies who want to defeat malaria just as badly as he does. But history will show that Sachs was absolutely right. Since then, we’ve seen that the free model has allowed for much broader distribution of bed nets—and much greater reductions in malaria—than market models.

In the end, I hope poverty fighters will not let what they read in this book stop them from investing and taking risks. In the world of venture capital, a success rate of 30 percent is considered a great track record. In the world of international development, critics hold up every misstep as proof that aid is like throwing money down a rat hole. When you’re trying to do something as hard as fighting poverty and disease, you will never achieve anything meaningful if you’re afraid to make mistakes.

I greatly admire Sachs for putting his ideas and reputation on the line. After all, he could have a good life doing nothing more than teaching two classes a semester and pumping out armchair advice in academic journals. But that’s not his style. He rolls up his sleeves. He puts his theories into action. He drives himself as hard as anyone I know.

I have no doubt that Sachs, like all relentless thinkers and doers, will come back with stronger ideas and approaches. Sachs will always be a squeaky wheel that roars. And the world will be a better place for it.


Bill Gates's Review:

School Budgets Can Be Too Complex


Each year in the United States, the K-12 public education system spends $500 billion or about $9,000 per student. This is probably the most important investment that we make as a society, for education is a primary source of economic strength and equality of opportunity. So it’s critically important that we make sure school money is well spent.

This may be more critical now than ever before, because growth in education spending is leveling off and budgets are even being cut. The biggest contributors, state and local governments, are under immense fiscal pressure. California, for example, has reduced K-12 aid to local school districts by billions of dollars and is cutting a variety of programs, including adult literacy instruction and help for high-needs students. Illinois cut 2011 education funding by $311 million, including significant reduction in programs to improve reading skills. Idaho is raising class sizes, Hawaii has furloughed teachers, and districts around the country are renegotiating staff and teacher pay. With federal economic stimulus funds winding down across the nation, and the federal government facing large budget deficits, there’s nowhere left to turn.

For a basic understanding of where education money comes from and how it gets spent, one of the books I highly recommend is Where Do School Funds Go? by Marguerite Roza.

What you'll learn, unfortunately, is that the complexity of the system makes it very hard to answer the question in the book’s title. Education funding is a complex mix of federal, state and local money, much of it designated for various, particular purposes. So school finance data is either very high level, like the amount per student, or it’s very detailed, like a school budget document. Either way, it’s not very useful for making comparisons and evaluating results.

Even experts have a very hard time figuring out whether school money is well spent. Say what you will about the flaws in No Child Left Behind, the law provided data that most everyone could understand: school-by-school test scores that revealed racial gaps and put the spotlight on schools that were not teaching even basic subjects very well. We need to do something similar with school finance data, so that parents and everyone else in the community can understand it and participate in a discussion of how to make sure our education spending achieves the goals we all want for our kids. Roza’s book has some very good recommendations about how we should be able to look at the data, classify the data, know what we spend and know what’s most effective.

Until recently, Roza was a professor and highly regarded senior scholar at the University of Washington Center for Reinventing Public Education. Her research has focused on how the resources available to schools and classrooms are impacted by policies at the federal, state, and district levels. Her analyses have prompted changes in education finance policy at all levels in the education system. Marguerite Roza joined the Gates Foundation in May 2010 to advise on our education work, especially our College-Ready and Postsecondary Success initiatives. She is helping us make sure that our investments are making a difference in terms of students’ success in high school, college and beyond.

At 99 pages, Roza’s book is a quick read, but it includes some stunning insights. She explains how the complexity of school funding inhibits schools’ ability to deliver services aligned with their academic priorities. For example, although federal Title I programs and many state initiatives are set up to provide equal funding for schools with low-income students, these inner-city schools still get short-changed, because their teachers are less senior and therefore paid less.

Her analysis uncovers the surprisingly high per-student cost of certain programs, such as cheerleading and crafts courses, because of union contracts, the types of teachers employed and the numbers of students involved. Roza also explores how complex, earmarked funding formulas prevent schools from operating more efficiently by purchasing services from the local community college, for instance.

One bright spot, Roza notes, is that teacher pay has improved a lot over the last 30 years. But pay is still largely based on seniority and whether a teacher has a master’s degree. Almost no teachers are given raises based on any measure of their effectiveness.

Maybe what’s most striking is how little flexibility schools have. A lot of spending is for specialists, transportation and other things that the school district, let alone the individual school, has no control over. This finding forces you to question the idea that you can fix a "failing" school simply by closing it and opening a new one under the same district policies and union contracts. Very little is actually decided at the individual school level. Charismatic principals and dedicated teachers can make a difference in some schools, but in general, the big decisions are made elsewhere.

Schools’ lack of flexibility is especially problematic now, when state and local education budgets are under pressure, as I discussed in a November 2010 speech to the Council of Chief State School Officers. Schools have very little ability to adjust or respond creatively to cuts in funding. Roza’s findings and recommendations are very timely, and I hope they are heeded.


Bill Gates's Review:

Small Adjustments to Aid Programs Can Yield Big Results


As I prepare for the G20 summit, I firmly believe that data has to be at the core of the analysis and conclusions in our report on development. At the same time, we need to look beyond the numbers and understand the everyday challenges faced by the world’s poorest people. The book Poor Economics is very helpful, because it is both empirically rigorous and insightful about the realities that the data doesn’t always capture.

Poor Economics is by two MIT economists, Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee and Esther Duflo.  Their life’s work is traveling to poor countries, looking closely at what works and what doesn’t work in efforts to fight hunger and disease, improve education, and broaden access to basic financial services. The authors are directors of J-PAL, an MIT poverty action lab that’s a network of 59 professors around the world who use scientific methods to answer critical questions about alleviating poverty.

To me, what’s really great about J-PAL is that it’s producing scientific evidence that can help make our anti-poverty efforts more effective. This is tremendously important. The money that governments invest in development is saving millions of lives, and improving hundreds of millions. But to sustain support for these efforts, we need to rigorously assess the cost-effectiveness and overall impact of aid, and make continuous improvements.

J-PAL conducts randomized evaluations of different approaches to achieving a particular objective, such as reducing malnutrition. For example, researchers try different ways of distributing food aid in similar villages, observe what happens, and compare the results. They’ve repeatedly found that outside of situations where there’s actual famine, just handing out food – no matter how nutritious – doesn’t necessarily improve nutrition. Sometimes people just cut back on their own food purchases and use that money for something else they need or want, even though consuming more calories could increase their productivity.

Although this may seem strange to us, J-PAL probes deeper to find out why people do what they do. In some instances, they may be in a situation where consuming more calories to work harder will not raise their incomes much or at all. And they may have other, urgent expenses, such as for health care.

Poor Economics does a great job of bringing alive the complexities of poor people’s lives. It explores the tough, difficult decisions they must make – often based on very little information and with no room for error – about things that most of us take for granted, like access to enough food, clean water or vaccinations.

Poor Economics focuses on the specific results and unintended consequences of anti-poverty projects, and in doing so, it reveals some smart strategies for achieving positive results. In some situations, for instance, limited aid may go farther if it is directed toward specific groups of people. One example mentioned in the book is delivering food aid and nutrition information to pregnant women and to children whose development can be permanently stunted by malnutrition.

Related to food aid, one of the “win-win” strategies we’re using at the foundation is helping poor farmers sell their produce to aid programs in their own and neighboring countries. That way, the aid programs can fight hunger and help raise the incomes of local farmers at the same time.

Poor Economics also is very good in spotlighting how small tweaks can sometimes turn failing interventions into effective ones. As I’ve learned, this often involves identifying and removing unintended barriers that prevent people from getting vaccinated, say, or using bed nets to prevent malaria. Given the challenges that poor people face in their daily lives, we need to make it as easy as possible for them to get the help they need.

For example, Rajasthan, India, had for a long time suffered from very low immunization rates – about 6%. This despite the government’s providing the vaccines for free. Increasing the vaccination rate was a challenge – walking to the clinics can be a hassle, and the clinics are unpredictably closed. To address these barriers, mobile clinics were established to provide vaccines on site. The impact of these mobile clinics was profound, with full vaccination rates jumping from 6% to more than 18%. Building on this success, the program was further enhanced with an incentive: a bag of lentils to all families vaccinated, which effectively doubled the rate again to 38%. Even with the incentive, the program was twice as cost effective per patient as just the mobile clinics alone, since the clinic staff was much busier. More importantly, a much larger group of children was vaccinated against polio, measles, DPT and tuberculosis – saving families from potential tragedy down the road and government from higher costs of sick care. You can read the J-PAL policy briefcase “Incentives for Immunization” to learn more about this study.

To be more effective, we also need a deeper understanding of people’s values and cultures. I’ve seen first-hand that local knowledge is critical. A couple of years ago, I visited AIDS-prevention projects that our foundation has supported in South Africa. They were effectively reducing AIDS transmission from women to men by persuading adult and teenaged men to be circumcised. As you can imagine, this was not an easy task, but with knowledge and respect, it can be done, and it can save many lives.

With the authors’ experience on the ground and their willingness to go where the evidence leads, I found Poor Economics a refreshing change from the sometimes theoretical and divisive debates that surround development aid. (An excellent companion book I’d also recommend is Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding.)

So, is development aid good or bad? A moral obligation or a waste of money? That depends on how it’s done, say Banerjee and Duflo. Financial resources are finite, so let’s figure out how to use them in ways that can have the most substantial impact.


Bill Gates's Review:

How the World is Held Together


Very few science books are worth reading 40 years after they were written. Only a few classics—like Richard Feynman’s books on physics or perhaps some of Richard Dawkins’ books—are so well-written and clear that they still make for good reading. James Edward Gordon’s book, The New Science of Strong Materials, belongs in this unique category. Despite the word “new” in the title, The New Science of Strong Materials was written back in 1968.

I have always wondered why some materials are strong and some are weak, why some crack under pressure and others flow, and what materials can be used for building bridges and tall buildings. There are so many amazing things about the properties of different materials. Why is it when you look around for tall things they are mostly made of iron or wood? What is special about metals? Why is iron with various impurities such a unique material? How does nature build strong things like wood? Why is a diamond hard but not strong? What is the magic of composite materials?

A few years ago, I toured the Hagia Sophia, a 1,500-year-old cathedral (now a museum) in Istanbul considered to be one of the greatest building projects of all time. Looking up at the enormous central dome and smaller half domes, I marveled at the genius of the ancient engineers and architects who figured out how to span pumice bricks across an area 200 feet by 100 feet, and 240 feet high, with no supporting pillars or beams. Sophia’s builders understood enough about the science of materials and the physics of large structures to know that they needed to maintain a state of compression in critical regions of the building. But not everyone back then did, as Gordon wryly notes: “It is not surprising that the roofs of churches continued to fall upon the heads of their congregations with fair regularity throughout the ages of faith.”

I always thought that at some point in the evolution of chemistry, after we understood crystalline structure, we would begin to learn why some things are strong. Unfortunately, that never really happened. I went and bought some graduate texts on materials but they assumed I already knew a lot about concepts like dislocations and different type of materials. What I wanted was a recapitulation of the history of materials told in an interesting and approachable way. That is what The New Science of Strong Materials provides.

There are a lot of words used to describe materials, such as strong, brittle, tough, or ductile. What do these terms really mean and where do these properties come from?

Gordon starts by explaining how chemical bonds matter. It you push down on a material, the bonds vary in terms of how much they give elastically, which accounts for the stiffness of the material. Lots of materials, like rock, can take a huge amount of compressive force before breaking.

There is a big difference in how a material behaves when you push down on it (compression) versus applying force to pull it apart (tension). Rock, brick, or normal cement can take a lot of weight in compression but then will break apart very easily under tension due to cracking. Under compression, most materials deform by about 1% before they break. Under tension, only metals and composite materials can reach that level.

Amazingly, the science of cracks was not well understood until the 1960s. Gordon and his colleagues were key players in making the breakthrough in understanding. This was important because lots of ships used to break in two and bridges used to fall down because engineers weren’t able to compute stress levels. They didn’t understand that holes in a sheet of material—even small ones like a hatch on a ship or a bolt hole in an airplane superstructure—allow stress to build up in a dramatic way.

Cracks in glass come mostly from imperfections on the surface. If you can make the surface super smooth, it is very strong and can be stressed over 2% without cracking. Cracks in solid materials are different because they result from the way stress builds up in one location in the crystalline structure.

Gordon has a love of natural materials such as bones, teeth, insect cretin, and wood. He thinks we have a lot to learn from nature and he correctly predicted that there would be breakthroughs in composite materials based on the way nature defeats cracking by having “weak interfaces.” Fiberglass, which was already being used in the 1960s, was an early step in composite materials. Gordon explains how the combination of glue (resins) and fibers together makes for a strong and crack resistant material. Glues have always confused me. Even after Gordon’s explanation I need to study them a bit more.

The book closes with an explanation of metals, particularly iron in its various forms—steel, pig iron, wrought iron, and all the various alloys of steel that can be made to withstand heat or corrosion. The key to why metals don’t crack is that the various layers of the crystal structure slide over each other, a characteristic called ductility.

Iron and many other metals in their pure form are too ductile. To make a strong material, you have to avoid ductility (flowing under pressure) and brittleness (cracking). Iron with impurities (particularly carbon at about 3% by weight, but 15% by the proportion of atoms) strikes this balance very well. Iron ore has some carbon in it so the history of smelting is figuring out how to achieve the high temperatures needed to get the carbon level just right. Iron is a key material for civilization and its price came down by a factor of over 10 during the 1800s as it fueled the industrial revolution.

I admit this book is not for everyone, but if you’re fascinated about how our world is held together, it is a very cool book that I recommend. If you’re interested in the science of engineering and the physics involved in building the world’s greatest structures, I recently wrote about a fascinating course offered by the Teaching Company, called Understanding the World’s Greatest Structures. For the curious, both are certainly worth the time.


Bill Gates's Review:

How Much Should We Worry About America’s Global Status?

That Used to Be Us is a fantastic book, and I really encourage people to read it. You’ll definitely like it if you’ve liked Tom Friedman’s column in The New York Times or if you’ve liked his previous books. This one continues his theme of how the world is changing rapidly and in fundamental ways, but this one is a bit different in that it focuses specifically on the challenges that these changes pose for the United States and on how the U.S. should respond.

Friedman is most famous for his bestseller The World is Flat, which is the best articulation of the paradigm shift that’s occurred over the past couple of decades as the world economy has become more globalized and competitive. That Used to Be Us, which Friedman wrote with Michael Mandelbaum, points out that the causes of this paradigm shift—the digital and Internet revolutions—were ideas and technologies that the U.S. pioneered. Now, though, the changes the U.S. helped bring about could be viewed as threatening our unique position in the world.

How the U.S. should deal with global challenges is an interesting and important topic. That Used to Be Us explains these challenges very well and has good suggestions on what the U.S. needs to do. The book has a valuable message and I recommend it, although there are some things I wish the authors had clarified.

The basic message is that other countries, the ones that are now competing with us and kind of scaring us, are not doing anything different from what we did in our past. We have a difficult time responding to them, however, because they’re copying the way we used to be, and meanwhile, we’ve changed. As our society has gotten richer, we’ve become more careful about protecting people’s rights and not harming the environment, for example. It’s good that we care about these things, but it slows us down compared with other countries that are at an earlier stage of development. And we’re not always very good at balancing rights and environmental concerns, on the one hand, with our interest in creating jobs and growing the economy. That’s very hard to do.

Friedman and Mandelbaum are almost saying, “Hey, let's set the clock back to the good old days when there was a bias towards action.” I wish they gave more guidance on how to do that while preserving the good changes we’ve made, including some of our increased focus on rights and the environment. Getting a sense of where the costs of our new approaches outweigh the benefits is hard.

The authors do have one clever suggestion on how to improve the political dialogue: start a third party. Maybe that would change the hyper-partisan atmosphere that prevents compromise and serious discussion of tradeoffs. A couple of decades ago, when partisan divisions were not as strong, some politicians carved out niches for themselves by becoming experts in particular policy areas. They assembled excellent staff and really mastered their subject. That helped them balance tradeoffs and come up with smart, technocratic solutions. Maybe a third party could help encourage that kind of specialization and expertise again.

There’s one question in particular that I wish the book answered more clearly: If other countries are growing and prospering and people in other countries are finding ways out of poverty, is that a bad thing for America? I don’t think so. How would the authors feel if the United States has to give up some of its leadership positions as the world improves overall? To focus attention on actions needed to renew America’s economic vitality, the authors tap into the anxiety that a lot of Americans feel about how well the U.S. is doing compared with other countries. I wish they had made it clear that America can still do well as other countries catch up with us. In fact, their prosperity can help us.

Our unique position relative to other countries largely resulted from the huge mistakes they made in the past. For decades, China ran its economy without market incentives. It stayed very poor. When China opened up in 1979, it began copying good ideas from us. It began pricing goods based on market demand. It began building infrastructure and good universities. It had a lot of catching up to do, but it could move quickly, partly because it didn’t have as much complexity to deal with as we do in the West. Today the Chinese are more like we were in the 1950s. But some Americans feel threatened by that.

I understand why people feel threatened. The economy has been slow to get back on its feet, and jobs are still scarce. Global competition is bringing changes in the economy. People are forced to adapt. Our whole economy needs to adapt. Friedman and Mandelbaum have good ideas for making the U.S. economy stronger and more competitive.

But they never really answer the question: Should 5% of humanity hope the other 95% messes up, just so the 5% can still call themselves exceptional? Isn’t it better for the whole world to become richer and healthier? Doesn’t that create new customers for U.S. goods and services, and make for a more stable world overall?

I sympathize with the anxiety that some Americans feel about the country’s relative position in the world, but I think a lot of it is misplaced. I’ve seen polls showing that a majority of Americans believe their children will live less well than they do. I believe Americans lives will continue to get better. Our current economic challenges aside, do people think the Internet will get slower? That cancer drugs will stop working and that we won’t invent new ones? That cars of the future will have manual brakes and steering? That women will lose their rights? That we’ll go back to watching VHS tapes again?

Anxiety about our place in the world shouldn’t lead us to ignore all the improvements happening as a result of innovation and other progress. We shouldn’t worry so much about whether other countries are catching up with us. Instead we should renew our own economic vitality by doing what we’ve done before: investing for the long term in education, science, infrastructure and stable government


Bill Gates's Review:

Innovation, Disruption, and Progress: What Do Vaccines, Software, and Shipping Containers Have in Common?

In the second half of the twentieth century, an innovation came along that would transform the way the world did business. At first, some people wrote it off as a fad. Others kept at it, convinced that it was going to have a huge impact. Some of the companies that made big bets on this tool  were very successful, while others ended up going under. Ultimately, it helped accelerate the globalization that had already been under way for centuries.

I’m not talking about software. I’m talking about the shipping industry, and in particular an innovation you might not have thought much about: the shipping container. It is the subject of an excellent book I read this summer called The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, by a former Economist editor named Marc Levinson. The Box is mostly about globalization, but there is also a larger story here that touches on business and philanthropy more broadly.

For centuries, cargo ships were loaded and unloaded by hand, one crate at a time. Each crate might have a different destination, which made the whole process slow and expensive. In 1956, a trucking magnate named Malcolm McLean had a clever idea: Instead of unloading a trailer’s worth of crates onto a ship, why not put the whole trailer on the ship?

It was the beginning of a revolution in the way goods move around the world. Shipping lines ordered bigger and bigger ships to accommodate the aluminum boxes that soon became the standard container. Port cities from New York to Singapore raced to modernize their facilities to accommodate the larger ships.

By the early 1980s, the transition to the containerized system was essentially complete. Computers were coming into the picture as well. I remember meeting with the leaders of port authorities that wanted to go paperless. They would ask, Are the computer systems reliable? How do they work?  Today it seems crazy that a ship would dock and somebody would get off with a piece of paper to show what’s in the cargo hold. 

The move to containerized shipping had an amazing impact on the global economy. As Levinson says, “A machine manufactured on Monday can be dropped at Port Newark on Tuesday and delivered in Stuttgart, Germany, in less time than it once would have taken to be loaded aboard a ship.” He cites one study that says the container system reduced freight rates from Asia to North America by 40 to 60 percent. At the same time, it also led to job losses at ports, since greater efficiency meant you could move more freight with fewer dock workers.

The story of this transition is fascinating and reason enough to read the book. But in subtle ways The Box also challenges commonly held views about business and the role of innovation.

For example, you often hear that it’s a big advantage to get into a particular business early. But in both software and shipping, that wasn’t necessarily the case. Some shipping companies made big bets early, and still failed. Apple was an early entrant in the PC business but didn’t take off until many years later. At Microsoft it certainly helped that we got an early start, but we never took that advantage for granted.

Or consider the conditions that make it possible for an innovation to take hold. You often hear simplistic arguments that it never happens without government involvement, or the opposite, that government only gets in the way. But the truth is more complicated. For example, there was no way that shipping companies in the 1950s and 1960s could raise enough capital to invest in new cranes, deepening waterways, and other changes that ports needed to take advantage of the new containers and ships. Only governments could do that. On the other hand, Levinson makes it clear that governments’ overregulation of the transportation sector held back a lot of innovation and kept costs high. So it is a complex picture.

That’s also true when it comes to setting standards. The container revolution only took off after all the boxes were built in compatible shapes and sizes, which meant they could be transported on ships, trucks, and trains from different companies. Similarly, the Internet relies on a common protocol for sending information. But it’s very hard to know ahead of time where these standards will come from. Few people would have predicted that the Internet protocol would grow out of a university research project funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. In the case of shipping containers, it took several years and the efforts of an obscure government agency and several industry groups to come to agreement.

These questions also touch on a lot of the work Melinda and I are doing through the Gates Foundation. For example, how can advances in shipping help deliver vaccines to remote areas, while keeping them cold so they don’t spoil? In education, many states are adopting common academic standards; how can these standards encourage software companies to develop new tools for teachers and students across the country?

Few people in the 1950s understood just how important the shipping container would be in shaping the global economy. That’s often the case with innovation—it’s hard to predict which ones will fizzle and which ones will change the world. That’s why it’s so important to keep investing in a broad range of innovations, whether they’re in the field of genetics, robotics, agriculture, or other areas. It’s the key to saving lives, driving human progress, and making the world a fairer place. You never know where the next shipping container will come from.


One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World?
by Gordon Conway, Rajiv Shah

Bill Gates's Review:

Finding Solutions, and Problems, in Agriculture

I recently read an important new book that explains why nearly 1 billion people in the world are still suffering from chronic hunger, and how that number will increase in the next several decades unless we act to increase the global food supply.

The book, One Billion Hungry, is by Gordon Conway, one of the preeminent experts in sustainable agricultural development. For people who want to learn about the connection between agriculture and world hunger, this book may be the best broad overview of how our modern food production system is tied to agricultural practices. It’s also very readable.

The picture Conway paints is a sobering one. Biofuel crops are competing with food crops for a decreasing supply of cultivatable land. Rising incomes in developing countries are driving up demand for resource-intensive meat products (a cow consumes eight pounds of grain for every pound of meat produced). These and other factors are pushing food prices higher and creating price spikes that are especially hard on poor families already spending most of their income on food.

Additionally, pollution, salinization, and inefficient use of existing water supplies are causing rivers to dry up and groundwater levels to decline. The rate of growth in yields of two key food staples—rice and wheat—is declining. By 2050, the world population is expected to increase from 7 billion to 9.1 billion—mostly in developing countries. And the consequences of climate change—higher temperatures and more frequent droughts and floods—are starting to impact agricultural productivity.

Taken as a whole, it can seem like a pretty frightening scenario. Like Conway, though, I’m optimistic that we can solve these problems if we start now. Ironically, one of the challenges we face is overcoming the complacency that set in after the success of the Green Revolution a half-century ago.

The Green Revolution was a series of agricultural research projects leading to the development of new corn, wheat, and rice seeds—and more productive farming practices—introduced throughout Latin America and Asia. Yields skyrocketed, resulting in lower food prices, less hunger, and lower poverty. The mass starvation predicted by one prominent academic researcher, Paul Ehrlich, in the 1968 bookThe Population Bomb, never came to pass.

One of the interesting points Conway makes in his book is that the success of the initial Green Revolution was as much about creating “the enabling environment” as it was about scientific advances. “Governments made substantial investments in agricultural research, in ensuring farmers had access to credits and input, and in getting markets to work efficiently. The favored countries benefited from governments willing and able to make and direct the necessary investments.”

Conway argues that we once again need to make agriculture more efficient and productive, less susceptible to variations in weather and markets, more equitable, and environmentally sustainable. He argues, and I agree, that this requires renewed political leadership, greater public and private investments in sustainable agricultural research and extension, better access to markets for smallholder farmers, and farmer-centered government policies and strategies that ensure women and children are getting adequate nutrition.

In particular, we need to pay close attention to Sub-Saharan Africa, which for a variety of reasons was bypassed by the first Green Revolution. Today, more than one of every four people in Sub-Saharan Africa is chronically undernourished—a significantly higher percentage than anywhere else. (Hundreds of millions of people are also still going hungry in Southern and Eastern Asia)  

The good news is that the global development community is smarter today about making sure that breakthroughs in seeds and technologies developed in rich and middle-income countries are making their way to farmers in poor countries. More information about best practices is getting to them. The tools of digital technology are working in their favor. And we’re seeing progress in connecting smallholder farmers to regional and global markets so they can grow and sell a wider variety of crops, in addition to whatever they’re already growing for their own consumption.

In some ways, I’m more optimistic than Conway that science-driven advances can strengthen our food security. The science of agriculture is actually at a pretty exciting stage. The tools of the biological revolution that were invented to understand human health apply very directly to understanding plants as well and could make a profoundly positive difference in the years ahead.

I agree with Conway that the wildcard in boosting agricultural productivity on a sustainable basis is climate change. Although climate change is being driven mainly by the activities of industrialized countries, the negative impact will be greatest in developing countries. It is likely to result in shorter growing seasons, higher temperatures, and extreme weather events such as flooding and periods of drought. Many areas in the developing world are already experiencing water shortages. Many crops can’t tolerate even a minor increase in temperature.

Conway also points out that agriculture contributes to climate change through the clearing of forests and emissions of nitrous oxide and methane. He believes agriculture can become part of the solution through development of new technologies and systems that reward farmers for mitigating emissions.

Beyond that, society as a whole must address the underlying causes of climate change to ensure a stable food supply for the world.

Conway’s book is well organized, with chapters on hunger, agricultural innovation, and environmental challenges that can easily be read on their own. Feeding our growing world is fundamentally important to all of us, no matter where you live. If there’s one book I’d recommend reading to get the definitive story about the state of agriculture today and what we need to focus on to increase productivity and eliminate hunger, it would be One Billion Hungry


Bill Gates's Review:

The Engines that Could—and Did—Transform the World


I’ve flown hundreds of times on airplanes and watched huge container ships enter Seattle’s busy seaport without ever giving much thought to the powerful jet and diesel engines that make the movement of people and cargo by air and sea an everyday occurrence.

Vaclav Smil, on the other hand, has written an entire book about the development and impact of gas turbines and diesel engines. Prime Movers of Globalization is another remarkable book by Smil, a professor at the University of Manitoba and a prolific author who takes an interdisciplinary approach to writing about important topics in the fields of energy, the environment, population, food production, and technical innovation.

As a history buff, I appreciate books that give you a sense of the people behind important inventions and the sweeping impact they have had on society. Often—as in the case of the diesel engine and the gas turbine—incremental advances obscure the profound impact of technology. In Prime Movers, Smil focuses in on a slice of 20th century technological innovation and shows the phenomenal impact it has had on international trade and travel.

To put the significance of the diesel engine and the gas turbine in perspective, Smil points out that until coal-powered steam engines came along a few hundred years ago, animals and human muscle were the “prime movers” of manufacturing, and wind and sails the prime movers of international travel and trade. The steam engine was an important underpinning of the industrial revolution. But its impact pales in comparison to the diesel engine and the gas turbine.

Today, the diesel engine powers virtually all of the ships that ply the oceans with bulk commodities such as grain and oil, and finished products like cars and consumer electronics. It also is the power source for most freight trains and large trucks. The gas turbine powers more than 18,000 jets that carry millions of people and billions of tons of cargo around the world daily.

Although there were a lot of people tinkering with engines at the turn of the 19th century, Rudolph Diesel is generally credited with inventing the diesel engine. Diesel didn’t live to see the widespread adoption of his invention. Heavily criticized for his ideas and despairing that they would ever be fully realized, Diesel apparently committed suicide in 1913 by jumping over the side of a steamer ship. Ironically, it soon became obvious that the diesel engine was by far the most efficient, reliable, powerful, and low-maintenance power source for ocean-going vessels, locomotives, large trucks, and heavy-construction equipment.

Building on advances in turbines in the first half of the 20th century, the U.S. and Germany both began testing gas-powered turbine engines in military aircraft during World War II. That led to the introduction of commercial jet service in the 1950s, with gas turbines quickly replacing propeller-driven engines because of their greater power, efficiency, and performance.

But it was the launch of the first wide-bodied jet—the Boeing 747—in 1970 that really made gas turbines a prime mover. I’ve ridden on 747s many times and have always been impressed—especially during takeoff—by their size. But I didn’t realize what an important role they’ve played in fostering international trade and travel by reducing the cost of flying and making it possible to ship goods around the world overnight.

In fact, Smil says, today’s prime movers have reduced the cost of shipping so much that “distance to the market has been largely eliminated” as a factor in siting manufacturing facilities, sourcing imported materials, or pursing new export markets. Another important development was the containerization of cargo so it can be quickly loaded on and off ships, trains, and trucks. This one advance cut the delivery time of many shipments by more than 95 percent.

Smil includes some fun anecdotes about the people who had a role in these innovations. For instance, the idea of containerized shipping originated with a North Carolina trucker who got tired of waiting all day to have his bales of cotton unloaded at the docks in New Jersey. Why couldn’t they just pick up the trailer attached to his truck and put it on the ship, he wondered?

He also points out several instances of parallel innovation, which is when two or more inventors come up with the same idea at virtually the same time. This is not as uncommon as you might think. Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray each filed patents for the telephone on the same day. In the case of the jet engine, a British inventor and Royal Air Force pilot, Frank Whittle, filed for a patent in 1930. Six years later, a German engineer, Hans Joachim Pabst von Ohain, filed for a patent without knowing of Whittle’s previous work. Ohain’s design was the first to be put to the test in a 1939 flight. But Whittle’s turbojet endured, becoming the foundation on which modern jet engines were built by General Electric, Pratt & Whitney, and Rolls-Royce.

Given my deep concern about climate change and our overuse of fossil fuels, I was happy to see Smil address the issue of energy consumption. Lowering the speed of fast container vessels by 20 percent would reduce fuel consumption by 40 percent—an amount equal to the annual oil consumption in India or Russia. Better hull designs could lower fuel demand by another 10 percent. And although efficiencies in engine design have reduced the fuel consumption of jet engines by 50 percent, Smil believes airlines could further reduce their carbon footprint by improving operational processes. He cites two examples: towing airplanes to the runway rather than having them taxi using their jet engines, and slowing down the speed of aircraft as they approach an airport in order to avoid wasting fuel while they circle their destination.

There are a lot of fascinating historical points and statistics in Smil’s book that make it an interesting read, but what most fascinated me was learning about the incredible impact these two innovations have had on so many aspects of our lives.



Bill Gates's Review:

Good Ideas, but Missing Analysis


Why have some countries prospered and created great living conditions for their citizens, while others have not? This is a topic I care a lot about, so I was eager to pick up a book recently on exactly this topic.

Why Nations Fail is easy to read, with lots of interesting historical stories about different countries. It makes an argument that is appealingly simple: countries with “inclusive” (rather than “extractive”) political and economic institutions are the ones that succeed and survive over the long term.

Ultimately, though, the book is a major disappointment. I found the authors’ analysis vague and simplistic. Beyond their “inclusive vs. extractive” view of political and economic institutions, they largely dismiss all other factors—history and logic notwithstanding. Important terms aren’t really defined, and they never explain how a country can move to have more “inclusive” institutions.

For example, the book goes back in history to talk about economic growth during Roman times. The problem with this is that before 800AD, the economy everywhere was based on sustenance farming. So the fact that various Roman government structures were more or less inclusive did not affect growth.

The authors demonstrate an oddly simplistic world view when they attribute the decline of Venice to a reduction in the inclusiveness of its institutions. The fact is, Venice declined because competition came along. The change in the inclusiveness of its institutions was more a response to that than the source of the problem. Even if Venice had managed to preserve the inclusiveness of their institutions, it would not have made up for their loss of the spice trade. When a book tries to use one theory to explain everything, you get illogical examples like this.

Another surprise was the authors’ view of the decline of the Mayan civilization. They suggest that infighting—which showed a lack of inclusiveness—explains the decline. But that overlooks the primary reason: the weather and water availability reduced the productivity of their agricultural system, which undermined Mayan leaders’ claims to be able to bring good weather.

The authors believe that political “inclusiveness” must come first, before growth is achievable. Yet, most examples of economic growth in the last 50 years—the Asian miracles of Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore—took place when their political tended more toward exclusiveness.

When faced with so many examples where this is not the case, they suggest that growth is not sustainable where “inclusiveness” does not exist. However, even under the best conditions, growth doesn’t sustain itself. I don’t think even these authors would suggest that the Great Depression, Japan’s current malaise, or the global financial crisis of the last few years came about because of a decline in inclusiveness.

The authors ridicule “modernization theory,” which observes that sometimes a strong leader can make the right choices to help a country grow, and then there is a good chance the country will evolve to have more “inclusive” politics. Korea and Taiwan are examples of where this has occurred.

The book also overlooks the incredible period of growth and innovation in China between 800 and 1400. During this 600-year period, China had the most dynamic economy in the world and drove a huge amount of innovation, such as advanced iron smelting and ship building. As several well-regarded authors have pointed out, this had nothing to do with how “inclusive” China was, and everything to do with geography, timing, and competition among empires.

The authors have a problem with Modern China because the transition from Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping didn’t involve a change to make political institutions more inclusive. Yet, China, by most measures, has been a miracle of sustained economic growth. I think almost everyone agrees that China needs to change its politics to be more inclusive. But there are hundreds of millions of Chinese whose lifestyle has been radically improved in recent years, who would probably disagree that their growth was “extractive.” I am far more optimistic than the authors that continued gradual change, without instability, will continue to move China in the right direction.

The incredible economic transition in China over the last three-plus decades occurred because the leadership embraced capitalistic economics, including private property, markets, and investing in infrastructure and education.

This points to the most obvious theory about growth, which is that it is strongly correlated with embracing capitalistic economics—independent of the political system. When a country focuses on getting infrastructure built and education improved, and it uses market pricing to determine how resources should be allocated, then it moves towards growth. This test has a lot more clarity than the one proposed by the authors, and seems to me fits the facts of what has happened over time far better.

The authors end with a huge attack on foreign aid, saying that most of the time, less than 10% gets to the intended recipients. They cite Afghanistan as an example, which is misleading since Afghanistan is a war zone and aid was ramped up very quickly with war-related goals. There is little doubt this is the least effective foreign aid, but it is hardly a fair example.

As an endnote, I should mention that the book refers to me in a positive light, comparing how I made money to how Carlos Slim made his fortune in Mexico. Although I appreciate the nice thoughts, I think the book is quite unfair to Slim. Almost certainly, the competition laws in Mexico need strengthening, but I am sure that Mexico is much better off with Slim’s contribution in running businesses well than it would be without him.


Bill Gates's Review:

Stepping into the public square to announce that foreign aid is important and effective can be lonely work.

As someone who has attempted to make that case over the past decade, I can assure you that the world is often eager to hear just the opposite.

Aid money can and does work. It improves people’s lives and makes the world a better and safer place.

Fortunately, an elegant and deeply researched new book has come along to reframe the debate and tip it, I hope, in a new direction. The title says it all: Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding—and How We Can Improve the World Even More.

The book’s author is Charles Kenny, a senior economist on leave from the World Bank and a fellow at the Center for Global Development and the New America Foundation. He writes a weekly column for as “The Optimist,” but he is a realist, too, and he brings an economist’s eye to this complicated topic.

In making his case, Mr. Kenny is going up against some notable critics. Recent books by writers like Dambisa Moyo and Matt Ridley have depicted aid as wasteful and even damaging to societies. But even some outspoken aid critics have been impressed by “Getting Better.” One of the best known, economist William Easterly, even provided a blurb, praising the book. “You will never look at global economic development the same way again,” he says. To me, that’s exactly right.

Mr. Kenny acknowledges that the billions of dollars that the West has poured into poor countries has had a limited impact on income, which is what most economists use to measure progress in living standards. As he notes, many countries in Africa today have real per-capita incomes lower than that of Britain at the time of the Roman Empire. Over the past several decades, through good times and bad, the income gap between rich and poor countries has grown. And no one really knows why.

But income is only one measure of success and maybe not the most meaningful one. Mr. Kenny shows that quality of life—even in the world’s poorest countries—has improved dramatically over the past several decades, far more than most people realize. Moreover, with reams of solid data to support his case, he argues that governments and aid agencies have played an important role in this progress.

We care about income mostly as a proxy for what money can buy: food, shelter, health, education, security and other factors that contribute to human well-being. Mr. Kenny’s great insight is to point out the flaw in focusing solely on income. Other trends, related to direct measures of quality of life, are much more encouraging.

Fifty years ago, more than half the world’s population struggled with getting enough daily calories. By the 1990s, this figure was below 10%. Famine affected less than three-tenths of 1% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa from 1990 to 2005. As Mr. Kenny suggests, the record has thoroughly disproved Malthusian prophecies of food shortages caused by spiraling population growth. Family sizes have fallen for many decades now in every region, including Africa.

And there’s more good news. Virtually everywhere, infant mortality is down and life expectancy is up. In Africa, life expectancy has increased by 10 years since 1960, despite the continent’s HIV pandemic. Nearly 90% of the world’s children are now enrolled in primary schools, compared with less than half in 1950. Literacy rates in the sub-Saharan region have more than doubled since 1970. Political and civil rights also have gained ground.

The case made by Mr. Kenny in “Getting Better” is a powerful antidote to overly gloomy assessments of development aid. Wasteful and corrupt aid projects are probably inevitable, and they should never be tolerated. But overall, when you look at the big picture, quite a lot of good things are happening.

What’s more, the book suggests ways to make aid more efficient and effective. Mr. Kenny notes that dramatic improvements in quality of life have been achieved even in poor countries where incomes have fallen. How can this be? He credits the spread of new technologies and ideas. Because of them, as he writes, many of “the best things in life are cheap.”

Eradicating smallpox from the face of the Earth, for example, cost about 32 cents per person in infected countries. In just six years, a drive to vaccinate African children against measles reduced the number who died of the disease by three-quarters, from more than 500,000 a year.

Even larger gains in public health can still be achieved at a stunningly low cost relative to the benefits. Of the 10 million children who die each year in poor countries, one-third could be saved through the wider use of breast feeding, insecticide-treated bed nets and oral rehydration therapy (a simple sugar and salt solution) to combat the effects of diarrhea.

Mr. Kenny recommends focusing development aid on helping to spread such ideas and the cheap technologies that can measurably improve quality of life. He suggests, among other things, that we create a global technology bank to fund research or award prizes for advances that particularly benefit the world’s poor.

After years of doom and gloom on the subject of foreign aid, it is refreshing to find so thoughtful and contrarian an approach to the topic. Charles Kenny shines a light on the real successes of aid, and he shows us the benefits that additional smart investment can bring.


Bill Gates's Review:

I had a chance to read Steven Brill’s book, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools, which came out last month. Brill is an excellent writer and does a strong job explaining the history of school reform, especially focusing in on the last three years and Race to the Top, the federal grant competition to encourage school reform.

I hope this book is widely read because it shows just how difficult it is going to be to improve education, including creating a personnel system that invests in improving teacher effectiveness.

Brill clearly took the time to learn about some complex issues, like how charter schools compare and what the federal No Child Left Behind program did to the education system in the U.S.

The book is over 400 pages, so it is not for anyone who just wants a quick skip through the status quo and a few debating points.  If you take the time to sit down with the book, you’ll be rewarded with a ringside seat as events unfold. You’ll be introduced to about 30 key people, many of whom I’ve enjoyed working with in recent years. All have played a significant role in education reform, includingJon SchnurMichelle Rhee, and Joel Klein.

There are some surprising facts too. One of the things that amazed me was the high proportion of people pushing for education reform who had spent time at Teach For America, the non-profit group that trains and places teachers in schools in low-income communities.

I was impressed by the key role that the group Democrats for Education Reform has played in encouraging Democrats to be willing to make changes that the teachers union resists. Brill doesn’t cover the challenges in getting Republican politicians to get behind reform as well as he does the Democrats though.

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan come across very well in speaking up passionately for a system that has to do better for the children.

The person that Brill spent the most time talking to in preparing the book is Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers union. Overall, he shows sympathy for the position she is in as a union leader, but he does highlight some places where she presents the union in a more reasonable light than their actual behavior would justify.

The book suggests that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg backed off from pushing for as much change as Klein, chancellor of the city’s Department of Education for eight years, was asking for and that his pension generosity was a mistake. If someone like Bloomberg – who is far braver and more committed to change than most politicians – shies away from the toughest part of changing the work rules and personnel system, then it shows how hard it is going to be.

Brill does some things really well - the foundation’s work on teacher effectiveness is clearly explained. But he doesn’t get everything right. He refers to the Common Core as a curriculum when, in fact, it is a set of standards on which curriculum will be based. And there’s the anecdote he tells about my having a pinball machine with Joel Klein’s head on it that I played during the Department of Justice antitrust trial against Microsoft in the 1990s (Klein was the lead prosecutor in the case). I can understand why he might want to include that great anecdote but I hate to disappoint him by saying it’s not true.

Overall, this book gives a real sense of the challenges that lay ahead for us in improving education in this country and it’s an important one for anyone who cares about an issue which ultimately affects us all.


Bill Gates's Review:

You’ll Never Look at a Pencil, Teacup, or Razor Blade the Same Way

People have all kinds of obsessions—silly, serious, and everything in between. The sheer diversity of these fascinations, from playing bridge (my personal obsession) to scanning the skies for new planets, is one of the most beautiful things about humanity. And yet one person’s obsession doesn’t necessarily make for interesting reading for those of us who have never been bitten by that same bug.

Mark Miodownik’s personal and professional obsession, as he explains in his book Stuff Matters, is basic materials we often take for granted such as paper, glass, concrete, and steel—as well as new super-materials that will change our world in the decades ahead. I’m pleased to report that he is a witty, smart writer who has a great talent for imparting his love of this subject. As a result, Stuff Matters is a fun, accessible read.

My favorite writer, the historian Vaclav Smil, also wrote a wonderful book on materials, but it’s completely different from Miodownik’s. Smil is a facts-and-numbers guy; he doesn’t bring any romance to his topic. Miodownik is the polar opposite. He’s heavy on romance and very light on numbers.

Miodownik, an Oxford-trained materials scientist who has worked in some of the most advanced labs in the world, discovered his obsession with materials in a bizarre way. When he was in high school in the 1980s, he was the victim of a random attack on a London Tube train. In his telling, instead of freaking out about the five-inch slash wound in his back, he fixated on the elegance of the attacker’s steel razor blade. “This tiny piece of steel, not much bigger than a postage stamp, had cut through five layers of my clothes, and then through the epidermis and dermis of my skin in one slash without any problem at all,” he writes. “It was the birth of my obsession with materials.”

Most of us have the luxury of not thinking much about steel—and not being attacked with a razor. But as Miodownik makes clear, steel is pretty magical. Its greatest virtue is that it doesn’t crack or break under tension, unlike iron, from which it is forged. Steel has been made by skilled blacksmiths dating back to ancient Roman times, but once inventors created a process for producing steel cheaply at industrial scale in the mid 19th century, it became central to our lives—from our utensils to our transport to our built environment.

Our next century is likely to produce even bigger material innovations. I live close to the longest floating bridge in the world, which, like so many big modern structures, is made from steel-reinforced concrete. That bridge has served Seattle well for more than a half century, but now it’s near the end of its lifespan. (From my yard I can see the construction crews working on the bridge that will replace it.) According to Miodownik, future bridges may be built with a “self-healing concrete” that could save billions of dollars in repair and replacement costs. 

Self-healing concrete is a great study in material innovation. In highly sulfurous volcanic lakes that would burn human skin, scientists found incredibly resilient bacteria that can stay dormant in rock for decades. You embed these bacteria in concrete with starch for them to consume; when the concrete cracks and water starts seeping in, the bacteria revive, find the starch, begin to replicate, and excrete minerals that seal up the crack.

I particularly liked Miodownik’s informative chapter on carbon (“Unbreakable”), which offers insights into one atom’s massive past, present, and future role in human life. Diamonds, one of the many material manifestations of carbon, have played a starring role in love and war for millennia. Coal powered our transition into the industrial age and is having significant impact on the chemistry of our atmosphere. Carbon fiber composites, sheets of graphite fibers encased in epoxy glues, are now transforming major industries from sports to aerospace to automobiles. I recently was briefed on carbon fiber city buses purchased by the city of Seattle, which are much lighter, stronger, cleaner, and safer than traditional steel buses and will save the city a lot of money on fuel.

Then there are far more exotic forms of carbon—like graphene, a layer of graphite one atom thick, and carbon nanotubes, graphene’s rolled-up form. Graphene is the thinnest and stiffest material known to humankind—200 times stronger than steel and yet lighter than paper. It is also the best conductor ever invented. As a result, it may someday replace the silicon chip and help usher in a new era in computing and communications. Yes, stuff matters!

In political contests, voters sometimes put more weight on whether they’d like to have a beer with a candidate than on the candidate’s qualifications. Miodownik would pass anyone’s beer test, and he has serious qualifications. I’ll be interested to see what he writes next. 


Bill Gates's Review:

How Are We Measuring the Success of Colleges?

We’ve seen for some time the disturbing data that America is falling behind other countries in the number of students who attend and complete post-secondary education. Now, new data suggests that many U.S. students who make it to college, and even succeed there, are actually learning very little.

The data comes from the book Academically Adrift, which raises some fundamental and surprising questions about the quality of U.S. undergraduate education. The authors, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, are sociologists who analyzed results from essay tests and surveys given to more than 2,000 students at the beginning of their freshman year and the end of their sophomore year. Between 2005 and 2007, data was collected from 24 four-year institutions, including state universities and liberal-arts colleges.

Two key findings have received a lot of attention:

  • About 45 percent of the students showed no improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning or written communication during their first two years in college. (On more recent tests, the students didn’t show much improvement in their junior or senior years, either.)
  • Students said most of their courses required surprisingly little effort. They reported studying only slightly more than 12 hours per week on average. Few of their courses required 40 pages or more of reading per week or writing as much as 20 pages over the course of a semester.

Before reading this book, I took it for granted that colleges were doing a very good job. But there is really no measurement or feedback system that tracks results, to help guide students and help institutions improve. Not overall, and not for individual courses of study. What do students in different programs learn, how many graduates get jobs in their field, how much do they earn? The outputs of higher education are a deeply understudied question.

The dismal results presented in Academically Adrift are based on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test in which students are asked to make a practical decision, such as what kind of airplane a company should buy, and explain their choice based on a set of goals and facts about different options. One criticism of the book is that it doesn’t look at subject-matter learning. But I think most people would agree that skills like critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing—the things the test does measure—are pretty important.

Beyond the top-line results, the authors gathered thousands of data points, different variables that you would hope might explain why learning is so limited. Unfortunately, most variables don’t seem to make much difference. The book nevertheless analyzes many of them, making it a hard statistical slog at times.

Not too surprisingly, more learning takes place among students who take demanding courses and who say their professors have high expectations. Science students make better-than-average progress, even in their writing skills.

Overall, the book depicts a culture in academia where undergraduate learning is only a peripheral concern; where the professors don’t want to assign complicated papers because grading them is hard work; where the main feedback is course evaluations from students who  dislike writing complicated papers; where there’s an attitude of, “Don’t mess with us and we won’t mess with you.” And there’s no accountability for any of it.

This may be a caricature. There are people going to college who are still doing very hard work. U.S. graduate education is still highly rigorous and leads the world. And many community colleges have made serious efforts to build programs around employers’ needs and to make sure students gain the skills to succeed in the workplace.

For example, Melinda and I were impressed a couple of years ago when we visited the Tennessee Technology Center in Nashville, an institution that provides young adults with technical training and certificates. Its graduation rates are significantly better than those of its peers because it focuses on teaching job skills that are in high demand, and it has adapted to meet the needs of students who are juggling school with work and family.

I’m also impressed by the results in places like Western Governors University. Its low-cost online programs rely on competency-based progression, not class-time or credit hours. It uses external assessments to evaluate student proficiency. And because its students are a little older and possibly more focused in their goals, its graduation rates are high and the salaries its graduates earn are good.

Because of institutions like Tennessee Tech and WGU, I’m optimistic about the potential of innovation to help solve many of the problems with our post-secondary system. But we need more and better information. I’m reminded of a point made by Andrew Rosen of Kaplan, the for-profit education company, that colleges today know more about how many kids attend basketball games and which alumni give money than how many students showed up for economics class during the week, or which alumni are having a hard time meeting their career goals because of shortcomings in their education.

That needs to change.


The Man Who Fed the World
by Hesser Hesser

Bill Gates's Review:

Helping Poor Farmers Grow Their Crops


Through my work at the foundation, I’ve been fortunate to meet some amazing people who have had a huge impact on the world. But, one person I’ll always wish I could have met is Norman Borlaug, a remarkable scientist and humanitarian whose work in agriculture has influenced my thinking and the foundation’s work with small farmers in the world’s poorest countries.

Fortunately, there is a great biography of Borlaug, The Man Who Fed the World, which I highly recommend. Although a lot of people have never heard of Borlaug, he probably saved more lives than anyone else in history. From the mid-1940s through the mid-1960s, Borlaug and a team of scientists successfully developed and introduced high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat seeds and new growing methods in Mexico, dramatically increasing the country’s agricultural production.

Just as Mexico was reaping the agricultural, social, and economic rewards of Borlaug’s efforts, tens of millions of people were on the verge of starvation in South Asia. One scientist, Paul R. Ehrlich, provocatively predicted in a controversial 1968 book, The Population Bomb, that hundreds of millions of people would die of starvation over the next few decades – no matter what anyone did.

Undeterred, Borlaug led the effort to ship thousands of tons of the wheat seeds developed in Mexico to farmers in India and Pakistan. In just a few years, wheat yields in both countries nearly doubled. India and Pakistan became self-sufficient in wheat production. And Borlaug, who became known as the father of the Green Revolution, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

It’s interesting to me how much criticism there has been of Borlaug over the years. It’s almost like people forget, or perhaps never really understood, what he did for humanity. It’s estimated that his new seed varieties saved a billion people from starvation.

But the significance of his work goes even further. When people get enough food to eat, their health improves and they are less susceptible to disease. In children, especially, improving their nutrition dramatically improves their brain and physical development. Much of the dramatic increase in productivity coming out of Asia over the last few decades is due to Borlaug’s Green Revolution.

One of the criticisms of Borlaug’s methods is the overuse of fertilizer. Even as great as his seeds were, they don’t grow magically. It’s true that there is a negative effect from the overuse of nitrogen, one of the key ingredients in fertilizer. It can flow into rivers and create algae blooms that kill fish. Today, as we look at increasing agricultural productivity, we do need to be smarter about how fertilizer is used in order to avoid these problems. For example, it can be applied in smaller doses near the root and irrigating can be done in a way that minimizes the flow of nitrogen into rivers.

The other main criticism was that the Green Revolution mainly benefited large farmers. In the first decade, it was those farmers who could afford fertilizer and understood seeds that did better. But in the second decade, there was an equally beneficial effect for small farmers. We do a lot of work through the foundation to help small farmers in poor countries, so we’re always watching out for inequities that hurt them.

Over time, the Green Revolution expanded to include other key crops such as rice and maize (corn). But for a variety of reasons, the agricultural innovation needed to create a breadbasket for Africa never got off the ground.

Seven or eight years ago, I came across a book, The Doubly Green Revolution, that really opened my eyes to the need for a Second Green Revolution to feed the hundreds of millions of people in Africa who are on the edge of starvation. The author, Sir Gordon Conway, a British agricultural ecologist, talks about the need for scientists and farmers in poor countries to work together to develop better plants and more sustainable agricultural practices. Conway also talked about the importance of creating better economic opportunities for poor farmers, who often are women.

Another book that influenced my thinking is The State of Humanity, a collection of essays edited by Julian Simon, an environmental economist. Simon believes in not underestimating the importance of technological innovation and human ingenuity in solving big problems that might seem insurmountable. This is a constant theme that I’ve always been interested in. When do people overestimate the power of innovation? When do they underestimate it? What do we need to do to foster it?

But most importantly, I have learned what’s possible in agriculture from studying Borlaug and what’s happened in the decades since his breakthroughs. We know that we need to encourage a sustainable model of agriculture. And we understand that small farmers in Africa and South Asia must be involved in developing and testing the agricultural advances needed to feed the hundreds of millions of people who are still going to bed hungry most nights.

Norman Borlaug was one-of-a-kind—equally skilled in the laboratory, mentoring young scientists, and cajoling reluctant bureaucrats and government officials. The second Green Revolution may not produce another Norman Borlaug, but his achievements and influence will continue to guide our work at the foundation and in agricultural development around the world.


Bill Gates's Review:

Can the Asian Miracle Happen in Africa?

I read Joe Studwell’s How Asia Works because it claimed to answer two of the greatest questions in development economics: How did countries like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and China achieve sustained, high growth and turn into development success stories? And why have so few other countries managed to do so? Clear answers could benefit billions of people living in countries that are poor today but have the essential ingredients to develop thriving economies.

I’m pleased to report that Studwell, a smart business journalist, delivers clear answers—not the hedged “on the one hand, on the other hand” answers that led an exasperated Harry Truman to ask for a “one-armed economist.” I found the book to be quite compelling. Studwell explains economic history in a concise and understandable way. I asked the whole Agriculture team at our foundation to read it because of its especially good insights into the critical role of household farming for economic development.

So what are Studwell’s answers to the multi-trillion-dollar question of why some Asian countries developed rapidly and others (Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand) did not? He offers a simple, three-part formula:


  1. Create conditions for small farmers to thrive.
  2. Use the proceeds from agricultural surpluses to build a manufacturing base that is tooled from the start to produce exports.
  3. Nurture both these sectors (small farming and export-oriented manufacturing) with financial institutions closely controlled by the government.


Here’s the formula in slightly greater depth:

Agriculture: Studwell’s book does a better job than anything else I’ve read of articulating the key role of agriculture in development. He explains that the one thing that all poor countries have in abundance is farm labor—typically three quarters of their population. Unfortunately, most poor countries have feudal land policies that favor wealthy landowners, with masses of poor farmers working for them. Studwell argues that these policies not only produce huge inequities; they also guarantee lousy crop yields. Conversely, he says, when you give farmers ownership of modest plots and allow them to profit from the fruits of their labor, farm yields are much higher per hectare. And rising yields help countries generate the surpluses and savings they need to power up their manufacturing engine.

Manufacturing: Studwell argues that once countries are producing steady agricultural surpluses, they should start moving to the manufacturing phase of development. He makes a strong historical case that the successful countries do not simply rely on the invisible hand of market forces; they supplement market forces with the heavy hand of state-driven industrial policy. These countries engage in a combination of protectionism (coddling infant industries to give them time to become globally competitive) and then culling losers (cutting off resources to firms that don’t succeed in export markets).

Finances: Studwell shows that rapidly developing countries usually give lip service to free-market principles while actually keeping their financial institutions “on a short leash.” In other words, they enact policies to protect themselves against the shocks and whiplash of global-capital flows, and they make sure their financial institutions serve the country’s long-term development ends rather than the short-term interests of financiers.

I came away from the book with many take-home messages that apply to our foundation’s work. I’ll highlight two.

First, I appreciated Studwell’s thinking about agriculture economics. Drawing on data on crop yields and overall agricultural output, he argues that rapid agricultural development requires redistributing land more equitably among the farming population. To date, I haven’t focused as much on the land ownership piece as I have on the role of better seeds, fertilizers, and farming practices. This book made me to want to learn more about the land ownership picture in countries where our foundation funds work.

Second, Studwell provoked me to think hard about whether his three-part formula is as applicable to Africa as it is to Asia. Certainly, the agricultural piece applies well—and has many economic and health benefits. The big question for me is: Can African countries become successful export-oriented manufacturing hubs? I do see this potential in countries like Ethiopia and Djibouti. They already have a strong connection with China and ambitious, long-term economic plans. Unfortunately, many other countries on the continent don’t have those same success factors, especially landlocked ones with very poor infrastructure. Helping farmers in those countries grow more food and earn more money would be a big help on its own.

How Asia Works is not a gripping page-turner aimed at general audiences, but it’s a good read for anyone who wants to understand what actually determines whether a developing economy will succeed. Studwell’s formula is refreshingly clear—even if it’s very difficult to execute.

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Jim Grant: UNICEF Visionary
by United Nations

Bill Gates's Review:

Target: Global Immunization

I recently came across a book that tells the amazing story of Jim Grant, whose influence in making vaccines widely available in the developing world is credited with saving the lives of 25 million children.

Because of the work the foundation is doing on vaccine-preventable diseases, I’ve read quite a bit about the history of global immunization. But until I read Jim Grant—UNICEF Visionary (an out-of-print book available for free download), I didn’t appreciate what a remarkable visionary and results-driven leader he was. I talk more about the impact of Jim Grant’s contributions in the foundation’sannual letter.

Grant was executive director of UNICEF—the United Nations Children’s Fund—from 1980 to 1995. Prior to that time, UNICEF was already well regarded for its global work—begun in the aftermath of World War II—preventing epidemics and malnutrition among children. In 1965, for example, UNICEF was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

But when Grant became head of UNICEF, he saw an opportunity to address a problem that was not high on the priority list of world leaders or international development organizations. At the time, about 14 million children were dying every year of readily preventable illnesses such as measles, tetanus, whooping cough, pneumonia and diarrheal disease. Virtually all of the deaths were occurring in the developing world; Europe and North America had mostly conquered the diseases with low-cost means of prevention or cure developed in the first half of the 20th century.

Grant decided to focus UNICEF’s mission on halving child deaths in the developing world through a massive effort to introduce the same immunizations already available in developed countries, along with other highly-effective low-cost strategies, such as packets of oral rehydration salts for people suffering from diarrheal disease, educating women about the benefits of breast feeding, and monitoring the growth of children. Collectively, these efforts were known as UNICEF’s Child Survival and Development Revolution.

Although we still face many difficulties today getting vaccines to the people who need them, the challenges Grant faced were an order of magnitude greater. No organization had ever tried tackling a global health issue on such a large scale and there were many skeptics, including within UNICEF.

But as Peter Adamson, who worked closely with Grant, writes in one of the book’s chapters, “…who could not be struck by the sheer unforgiveableness of millions upon millions of children dying…when the means to prevent it were at hand.”

Grant talked to anyone who would listen—political leaders, religious leaders, business leaders, educators, the media, NGOs, even the military and police. Repeatedly, he made the point that 40,000 children a day were dying unnecessarily.

In the midst of a civil war in El Salvador, Grant managed to get the government and guerilla leaders to agree to multiple cease fires so children could safely be immunized. (He facilitated similar “periods of tranquility” in wars in Lebanon, Sudan and Iraq.) When Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister of India after the assassination of his mother, Indira Gandhi, Grant persuaded him to make the immunization of India’s children a living memorial to his mother. In Colombia, more than 800,000 children were immunized three times in a three-month period, raising that country’s immunization rate to 75 percent. In Turkey, school teachers were asked to end their vacations three weeks early so they could mobilize their villages. Immunization levels increased from 20 percent to 84 percent.

By the mid-1980s the percentage of children in the developing world who were immunized doubled to 40 percent and prominent organizations like the World Health Organization and Rotary International had joined the effort, providing scientific advice, training, funding and volunteers.

Amazingly, Grant’s target of over 70 percent immunization in the developing world was achieved by 1990. In that year alone, 100 million children in 150 countries were immunized six or more times. It was, Grant said, the largest effort of peacetime mobilization to that point in history.

Grant’s work is especially inspirational when you realize that he achieved success despite a world recession and global debt crisis in the 1980s. We can draw lessons from his leadership now, in our own tough economic times.

By creating a global constituency for children, getting people to focus on specific goals, and creating effective program delivery and measurement systems, Jim Grant literally saved millions of children’s lives.


Bill Gates's Review:

Smarter Spending Could Improve U.S. Education


I wish there were ten more books like Stretching the School Dollar.

It’s a very readable examination of what’s wrong with how we spend money on public education in the United States today, and how to fix it. Each chapter is written by a different expert. Most chapters are case studies that vividly illustrate important problems and actual solutions. I’ve been reading widely about state budgets and school finance. This book is one of several (another is Marguerite Roza’s Where Do School Funds Go?) that I’ve found interesting and useful.

It’s also very timely, because school dollars over the next several years will not be growing much, if at all. State budgets are under tremendous pressure. Federal stimulus dollars are drying up. And because education takes a big share of state spending (along with rising healthcare costs, which add to the pressure), schools are facing cutbacks almost everywhere, with no sign of relief in the near future.

This is extremely unfortunate, because education is probably the most important state program, the most significant and consequential in terms of long-term impact on people’s lives, on our society, and on our economy and competitiveness. U.S. education is far from perfect; by many measures of educational achievement, we lag behind other advanced nations. We need to improve dramatically. But a lot more money is just not available. In fact, we need to do more with less.

Which is why it’s so important now that we figure out how to spend education dollars more effectively. Stretching the School Dollar is very helpful in illuminating the challenges and the opportunities.

One of the authors, Nathan Levenson, is the former superintendent of schools in Arlington, Massachusetts. He led Arlington to award-winning growth in academic achievement despite declining budgets. He explains how he did it, by challenging old ways of doing things and what he calls a "poverty mentality." He reallocated resources from clearly ineffective programs to focus district efforts on a few key priorities, including a common curriculum, professional development for teachers, and "an unrelenting focus on reading." These changes produced major gains in student achievement, but also angered laid-off crossing guards, redundant administrators sent back into the classroom, and others whose programs were cut or eliminated. In the end, Levenson faced fierce criticism, abuse and even threats against him and his family. Bruised and battered, he resigned after three years. But he has sensible suggestions on how other reform-minded superintendents might avoid his fate.

Marguerite Roza, who consults on education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has a great chapter that points out a simple change that would really help us better understand our options in spending education dollars. We’d have much greater clarity, she says, if we simply looked at the numbers on a per-student basis. For example, one school district considered remodeling a stadium to improve its running track at a cost of $4.3 million. That price tag sounded reasonable until they figured out that, over the track’s 50-year lifespan, with a track team of 40 students per year, the project would cost $2,000 per student per year. The district was spending only $9,000 per student for everything. They decided to keep their old stadium.

Surprisingly, schools often don’t break down the numbers this way before deciding how to spend their money. When they do, sometimes the numbers are just stunning. It would be great if the numbers and the tradeoffs could be simplified and made more available to the public, so that everyone has a chance to consider them. As it is, people tend to just want infinite resources for education and many other programs, but they don’t want to pay more in taxes. Everyone needs to get involved in thinking more realistically about the alternatives.

The authors of Stretching the School Dollar all work in education and believe in education. They don’t like seeing cuts in education any more than anyone else. But the authors are tackling tough questions and putting forward interesting ideas for how we can educate more students more effectively with the resources we have. Because education is so important, and the dollars available for it are getting more precious all the time, I hope many people will read the book and think about how to put some of these ideas into action.


Bill Gates's Review:

Education Reform and KIPP


Jay Mathews’ book Work Hard. Be Nice. describes the history of KIPP by telling the story of Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin. KIPP is remarkable in some ways, particularly in its ability to attract great teachers and engage and inspire students.

(I spoke about KIPP a bit in a 2008 TED talk I gave and there’s an interesting report on KIPP from NBC.)

Jay did a great job writing this book.

The book gives a great sense of how hard it was to get KIPP going and how intense the focus on good teaching is.

Great teaching in 5th-9th grade is very hard because it’s challenging to get all of the kids engaged and because dealing with kids who cause trouble or are bored requires special skills.

You also have to know the topic to make it clear and interesting.

I wonder how much has been done to record best practices on video and make them easily available online.

High school teaching is somewhat different but a lot of the key skills are the same.

A teacher has to be a real performer and very dedicated to the kids to teach the way that KIPP expects.

Mike and Dave are gifted teachers but they do manage to get less gifted people doing most of what they do.

The amount of time they spend with the kids really is unbelievable. Between the long day (7:30 to 5) and every other Saturday and three summer weeks it is 60% more than normal schools.

In addition the teachers are asked to let the kids call them anytime.

I also read the KIPP 2007 Report Card which goes through every KIPP school open for more than a year.

They have 66 schools in operation today. Almost all of those are middle schools only. They have three high schools.

They have decided that kids are still open minded and can still catch up when they get them in 5th grade.

They would prefer to get them earlier and they have five schools that do that but mostly they start in 5th.

In almost every area they stop at 8th so they have to work hard to try and get their kids into good high schools.

Without more great high schools their work will not have the leverage it deserves to have.

They plan to get to 100 schools by 2011. I think most of their high school plans are in the Houston area.

I am impressed with the way KIPP does measurement. They have Mathematica doing a hard core analysis that looks at the kids well after they leave KIPP.

KIPP clearly has a huge affect on kids. Some people say they get the kids who are better to start with in terms of knowledge, motivation, or parents but this has been examined quite closely and if it is true it is a very modest difference relative to the surrounding schools. The KIPP kids are well below average coming in compared to the state averages almost everywhere. One example of KIPP’s success: while only 20 percent of low-income students in the U.S. attend college, the rate for former KIPP students is 80 percent.

People look hard at the number of kids who leave KIPP to decide how that should be reflected in the KIPP performance statistics.

I am impressed that KIPP takes all of these issues very seriously and where there is an issue they focus on it. They really have the right goals and a strong culture.

I certainly think people who care about education should read the book and a lot more people will decide to help KIPP.

The questions about costs, rules, and ability to scale will be asked by every reader of this book. I certainly want to understand these things better.

I find it stunning that the educational schools are not training teachers to use the KIPP way of teaching classes.

What the heck is going on with schools of education and what is the field going to do to get some of them to get involved in this kind of work?


Bill Gates's Review:


A Family Struggling to Make a Life


I’ve visited a lot of urban slums and it’s always difficult to describe to people back home just how bleak they can be. If you want to read an unvarnished, first-hand account of life in one of India’s slums you should pick up Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.

The book was written by Katherine Boo, an award-winning Western journalist who spent three years getting to know the people of Annawadi, a slum of about 3,000 people on the edge of a sewage-filled lake in India’s largest city. Her research alone is a tremendous achievement.

The centerpiece of the story is a family falsely accused of a crime. Their story becomes a way to understand the very tough position people living in slums are in, and the great injustices that happen in a slum. It’s a reminder of how capricious their life can be.  In Annawadi, exploitation and corruption are rampant and you can’t count on fairness or even basic justice if you are one of the world’s poorest.

Ironically, Annawadi survives—for now—amidst gleaming luxury hotels that reflect Mumbai’s status as India’s richest city and its commercial and entertainment capital.

Most of the people come from other parts of India, hoping for a better life. It’s hard for us to imagine that life could be much worse somewhere else. But many poor people are leaving the rural regions on their own because there is at least relative freedom in the slums and also the possibility that you could find something new to do.

Many people in Annawadi survive by scavenging garbage and some by thievery because that’s the only way they can see to make money. Sickness and disease are always present. And life is often unpredictable. Like many slums, the people don’t own the land, so they never know when the government is going to come in and push them out.

So it’s a sad story and it makes you want to help. It reminds us how much more work needs to be done to address the inequities in the world. But it’s also uplifting at times because Boo shows people striving to make a life for themselves, sacrificing for their families, and in their own way, being innovative and entrepreneurial in creating a vibrant local economy.

More broadly, the story of Annawadi reflects the big and growing problem of urban slums. More than 900 million people live in poor, densely-populated areas in developing countries. Over the next several decades, that number is expected to increase to several billion.

Many urban centers are ill-prepared to meet the basic needs of rapidly expanding urban populations today, so it’s sobering to think about it getting worse. It’s difficult for donor organizations and governments to help because there are so many complex local systems involved, such as water, sanitation, policing, the judiciary, and education.

And as Boo shows, even aid organizations can be corrupt, although I do think the two examples she cites can be misleading. I know from first-hand experience that there are thousands of fantastic NGOs and government organizations—in India and elsewhere—working hard and honestly to improve living conditions for the poor.

The foundation works with many of them, including some that are focused specifically on addressing urban poverty. We’re investing in better sanitation and financial services for the poor, which can make a difference in places like Annawadi. We have made improving health a top priority because we believe it is the basic building block for people to make the most of their lives. This includes investing in vaccines and other drugs to tackle diseases that disproportionately affect the poor, and working to improve health care for mothers and children.

All of these things will make an impact in urban slums. But there’s no doubt that urban poverty is a uniquely complex and vexing problem—without a quick or simple solution. As the world population grows by another 2 billion over the next several decades, most of that increase will show up in urban slums. The challenge for our foundation and for other donors is to find ways to collaborate with governments so that aid programs work in tandem with effective delivery of basic services. Otherwise, the suffering and often brutal nature of life will continue for the world’s urban poor. On my trip to India this week, I visited an urban slum in Lucknow, the capital city of the state of Uttar Pradesh, to see what’s working and continue to look for ways we can help improve the lives of the poorest.

After reading the book I had a few questions I wanted to ask Katherine Boo. She has agreed to write a response to my questions which we’ll post here on Gates Notes soon.


Bill Gates's Review:

Absurd But True Science Lessons

My guess is that you haven’t spent a whole lot of time wondering what would happen if you pitched a baseball at 90 percent of the speed of light. I haven’t either.

But that’s okay, because Randall Munroe has figured it out and explained it really clearly in his bookWhat If?.

It’s a collection of some of his favorite posts from one of the two blogs he keeps. His first blog, XKCD, which he’s also turned into a book, is made up of cartoons he draws making fun of things—mostly scientists and computers, but lots of other things too. There’s one about scientists holding a press conference to reveal their discovery that life is arsenic-based. They research press conferences and find out that sometimes it’s good to serve food that’s related to the subject of the conference. The last panel is all the reporters dead on the floor because they ate arsenic. It’s that kind of humor, which not everybody loves, but I do.

What If? may not be quite as funny as XKCD, but it’s a lot more interesting. The subtitle of the book is “Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions,” and that’s exactly what it is. People write Munroe with questions that range over all fields of science: physics, chemistry, biology. Questions like, “From what height would you need to drop a steak for it to be cooked when it hit the ground?” The answer, it turns out, is “high enough that it would disintegrate before it hit the ground.” Another question: “What would happen if you made a periodic table out of cube-shaped bricks, where each brick was made of the corresponding element?” to which the answer is, essentially, the human race would be wiped out. Munroe’s explanations are funny, too—he’ll use giraffes as a unit of height measurement, and draw pictures of ten giraffes standing on top of each other.

Nevertheless, the explanations are scientifically valid. And they’re very well researched, with citations of obscure papers like “Sexual Cannibalism in Orb-Weaving Spiders: An Economic Model” (actually, that one is from the website, but I assume it’ll make it into the sequel, which I hope will be called What Iffer. Or the next one, What If? Strikes Back). He verifies his facts by calling expert scientists all over the world, and I have to imagine those conversations are amazing.

The reason Munroe’s approach is a great way to learn about science is that he takes ideas that everybody understands in a general way and then explores what happens when you take those ideas to their limits. For example, we all know pretty much what gravity is. But what if Earth’s gravity were twice as strong as it is? What if it were three times as strong, or a hundred? Looking at the question in that way makes you start to think about gravity a little differently.

Here’s another example. It turns out that, if you have a glass that’s literally half empty—the top half water and the bottom half a perfect vacuum—the glass shatters and the pieces fly up to the ceiling. But Munroe doesn’t just say, “the glass shatters.” He goes through every step of the process, so that you understand why the glass shatters. The suction squeezing together the glass and the water—which, by the way, is boiling—is so powerful that it actually lifts the glass off the table. When the glass and the water finally meet, the water is moving downward quickly enough that the shock breaks the bottom of the glass. Meanwhile, the glass is moving upward quickly enough that the broken pieces fly up to the ceiling. Munroe concludes: “If the optimist says the glass is half full, and the pessimist says the glass is half empty, the physicist ducks.”

So if you’re dying to know how fast you can drive over a speed bump and still live, or how many Legos it would take to build a bridge from London to New York, or whether we could make the moon change colors by pointing every single laser pointer on Earth at it—you’re in luck. Not only do you have a place to go for the answers, but you’ll also learn about a lot of other things like ballistics, DNA, the oceans, the atmosphere, and lightning. And when to duck if the glass is half full.


Bill Gates's Review:

How Math Secretly Affects Your Life

I took a lot of math classes in college. I remember Professor Shlomo Sternberg getting up on the first day of his class and telling us we weren’t going to see any numbers other than 0, 1, and 2. I had a great time in that one.

Jordan Ellenberg, the author of How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, studied under Sternberg, but I think I’d like his book even if we didn’t have that in common. On the surface it’s about math, but it’s really about how much math plays into our daily lives without our even knowing it.

The book starts with a story about Abraham Wald, an Eastern European mathematician who worked for the American government during World War II. One day the military came to him and said, “We have a problem. We send our planes overseas, and when they come back, their engines are fine, but their tails are riddled with bullet holes. If we put more armor on the tails, though, the planes get too heavy to fly. Can you help us figure out how to protect the planes’ tails better?”

And he said, “No.”

They were surprised, but then he explained that they were asking the wrong question. “You need to put more armor where there aren’t bullet holes. Clearly, when the plane gets hit in the tail, it makes it back to you. Your problem is the planes that get hit in the engine, because those are the ones that aren’t coming back.”

Ultimately, that’s really what the book is: a series of stories about how a lot of the apparently non-mathematical systems that underpin our daily lives are actually deeply mathematical, and people couldn’t develop them until they started asking the right questions. Each chapter starts somewhere that seems fairly straightforward—electoral politics, say, or the Massachusetts lottery—and then uses that as a jumping-off point to talk about the math involved.

In some places the math gets quite complicated. Ellenberg deals with cutting-edge thinking about subjects like prime numbers, extra dimensions, and relative infinities. A non-mathematician might get a little lost along the way. But even if you don’t feel like following him all the way to the bottom of things like Fano planes, 24-dimensional spheres, and Condorcet’s paradox, after he goes really deep he always comes back to make sure you’re still with him.

The way he deals with the lottery is a great example. For several years, the Massachusetts lottery ran in a way that allowed three teams—one led by an MIT student, one by a medical researcher, and one by a guy from Michigan—to game the system and win millions of dollars. You might ask, How could the state let them cheat like that for so long? Part of the answer is, the state didn’t care. Massachusetts got 80 cents for every $2 lottery ticket sold, no matter who won. And the second part of the answer is, they weren’t cheating. They were taking advantage of math to give themselves slightly better odds at winning and other people slightly worse odds. They basically turned themselves into the house at a casino.

But Ellenberg extends his analysis even further, because while two of the teams just had the Quic Pic machine choose their numbers randomly, the team of students filled out its tickets by hand. Tens of thousands of tickets, every time they played! Ellenberg has mathematical explanations for the difference—filling out the tickets by hand exposed the students to less risk of losing money in any given week—and then points out that, if you’re on a student’s budget, the thought of losing any money at all is pretty scary.

Toward the end of each chapter, Ellenberg broadens from these specific examples to a series of questions about how else some of the ideas in the chapter might be used, what kinds of mathematical questions are left to answer, and what kinds of real-life problems they might eventually solve.

Given how black-and-white so much of our political dialogue has become, I think it’s great to have somebody advocating for looking at the numbers, explaining the relative costs of things like alternative tax policies or what happens when you implement different voting strategies. Even if you don’t follow the deepest math behind these things, you can still appreciate the argument and the rigor of the thinking, and the world can always use more rigorous thinking.

The writing is funny, smooth, and accessible—not what you might expect from a book about math. What Ellenberg has written is ultimately a love letter to math. 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.


Bill Gates's Review:

Complex Leader of a Complex Country

Though the book is framed around the rise of Deng Xiaoping and his reforms that transformed China into an economic powerhouse, Ezra Vogel’s compelling biography examines how China went from being a desperately poor country to certainly one of the two most important countries in the world today.

A Communist revolutionary and military commander under the brutal rule of Mao Zedong, Deng emerged as China’s capable leader in 1978 for fourteen years. For all of Deng’s success leading China out of poverty, he cannot escape the central role he played in violent attacks on landlords in 1949, or intellectuals in 1957 or the tragic killings in Tiananmen Square under his own leadership in 1989.

Deng was a strong believer of socialism although he supported a market economy and created an export model of economic development. Subsequently China’s economy grew at over 10% per year for 20 years.

As part of our work at the Foundation we strive to improve 10 or 20 million lives in the areas of global health and global development. We have discovered new approaches and created new tools to get vaccines, AIDS drugs and contraceptives to the people who need them, and advanced agricultural innovation to transform farmers’ lives so that they can feed their families.

But, China’s reforms coupled with the tenacity and hard work of its people has improved hundreds of millions of people’s lives in less than a generation. That is more human lives climbing out of poverty post World War II than any other country.

Today, about 15 percent of people in the world - over 1 billion people - live in abject poverty. Fifty years ago, 40 percent of the global population was poor. The massive reduction in poverty is due in part to the “Green Revolution,” in the 1960s and 1970s where researchers produced seeds that helped farmers vastly improve their yields. And because of China. One country alone has lifted 500 million people out of abject poverty.

China in 1979 was one of the poorest countries in the world, far poorer than India. They were barely scratching out a living and their population density made it difficult for them to feed their population. There was very little to build on other than the fact that the party had incredible authority. With this authority, Deng set in motion a series of critical changes early on in his leadership to achieve cultural stability and significant economic growth.

Surviving the Great Famine of 1961 where millions died, Deng reformed the land system and increased agriculture production, initially in just one part of the country. He extended farmers’ land leases and encouraged them to profit from any grain they grew over and above what they owed. He introduced high-yielding varieties of cereal grains and synthetic fertilizers emulating the best innovations of the “Green Revolution”. As a result the agricultural sector exploded with farmers producing three times as much in 10 years, all with less labor.

Where before they taxed poor farmers to bootstrap the industrial commune, the workers who were no longer needed in the fields moved into the cities and created a robust industrial sector.

To support a high growth industrial sector, Deng fostered education and built new schools and institutions of learning to underpin the economy. He also endorsed students and business people to travel internationally to study and learn from other countries. China’s success in part has been its ability to synthesize what successful economies have done well and leapfrog history and the competition.

Vogel, an emeritus professor at Harvard University, demonstrates a deep understanding of China’s complex culture and draws on extensive research and his East Asian experience as an intelligence officer for the Clinton Administration. In a recent New York Times interview, Vogel said, “with this book, I thought I could write something new that would educate Americans about China.” I think he absolutely achieves this. Vogel also helps his readers navigate the labyrinth of people and places with mini bios and a map that was an invaluable reference when reading his book.

Although Deng’s transformation of China cannot be separated from the violent attacks that he administered under Mao’s rule or the brutal approach he took to stopping the Tiananmen Square student protests, the economic reforms have improved the livelihoods of millions of people.  China has capitalized on advances in education, healthcare, agriculture and innovative technology to help accelerate their own development and transition beyond the need for aid.

To have done this essentially in one generation is an unbelievable accomplishment and is unique in the history of the world.


Bill Gates's Review:

Tools for Evaluating Teaching

It’s a hot topic because of efforts to improve classroom learning by using improvement in student test scores as one of multiple measures to evaluate teachers, and then make decisions about their retention, promotion, and pay. In the past, most school districts have made these decisions based almost entirely on seniority and whether a teacher had earned graduate degrees. Results in the classroom weren't considered at all. President Obama’s Race to the Top Initiative began encouraging states to use improvements in test scores as part of evaluating teachers. And today some 30 states do so.

Harris is a proponent of using value-added measures that get at how effective a teacher is at helping students progress from whatever level they're at when the year begins. By analyzing how a teacher’s students improve during their time in his or her class, rather than looking at absolute test scores, you don’t unfairly reward teachers who happen to have a lot of top students. And you don't unfairly punish teachers who take on the challenge of teaching kids who may not arrive well-prepared or very engaged with school for whatever reason, often because they come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Some people argue that standardized tests distort the learning experience—that teachers will “just teach to the test”—and that tests don't measure creativity. That’s an interesting point in subjects like art and music. In these and some other subjects, knowing what to test is complicated. You need to be very careful.

But it seems to me that well-designed tests in science and math are useful in determining proficiency. Teaching students to pass such tests is a good thing. Creativity is important too, but in fields such as, say, economics or nursing, first you need to be able to do the math. No one is so creative that the person is a good nurse although unable to do the division needed to figure the right dosage of medication to give a patient. 

Harris is careful to say that test scores should be just one of several kinds of data used in evaluating teachers. Scores alone can be misleading, although field experience in the states has shown how to minimize random variance, such as by looking at two years’ of a teacher's student scores. For the most part, Harris does not acknowledge this field experience, although he discusses the statistical reasons to be cautious with test results.

Still, I think he’s right in emphasizing that while value-added measures can help principals focus on working with teachers who may be struggling, the principal and peer-teachers should sit in on classes and provide feedback the teacher can use to improve. This is the big benefit. Only if all else fails, over a reasonable amount of time, should a teacher who's weak (based on experts' observations as well as scores) be counseled to find another line of work.

Including test data as one component is the key to creating that feedback loop. Research from the foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project has found that by using a balanced combination of measures—including value-added test scores—it is possible to identify aspects of teaching that ultimately lead to what we want most—better student learning.  Among these measures, classroom observations and even student surveys can offer teachers real guidance for improvement tailored to their particular needs. When evaluation systems have professional development aims too, teachers can improve, the system can target supports that are actually working, and students benefit.

Testing alone is not enough. Harris provides a theoretical explanation of the statistical reasons why testing is vital but should be used carefully and as part of a system of classroom observations and professional development. His overall conclusions are validated by several years of field experience with teacher evaluation in states such as Tennessee. His book is a solid introduction to how value-added measures can work, although he could have made better use of actual field data to show how pitfalls can be avoided. That would have done more to ease some fears of these measures and of teacher accountability overall.

Through the use of multiple measures, evaluation systems can serve professional development as well as accountability goals, supporting teachers as they work to improve, building trust among teachers, and ultimately benefiting students.


Bill Gates's Review:

The Steam Engine and the Industrial Revolution

In the summer of 2009 I wanted to read the amazing story told by The Most Powerful Idea in the World. Author William Rosen just hadn’t written it yet.

That summer Melinda and our kids were in London on a vacation packed with a lot of learning. We spent huge amounts of time at the British Museum and toured many great historical sites. Over the course of a few afternoons, my son and I explored the Science Museum, where we found the “Rocket,” a steam locomotive that in 1829 pulled three-times its weight at a then-breathtaking 30 miles an hour. That feat won the Rocket’s inventor a railroad contract and minted a basic locomotive design that was used for the next 100 years.

Seeing the Rocket on the ground floor of the museum you could imagine how many innovations must have come together to build this iconic machine. A product of British ingenuity, the Rocket also arrived towards the end the Industrial Revolution, which was tightly tied to the advent of steam power.

That history had long interested me; our visit to the Rocket piqued it. But I couldn’t find a book that brought the story to life until the end of last year when I picked up Rosen’s chronicle of the rise of the steam engine. Published in 2010, The Most Powerful Idea in the World is an entertaining narrative weaving together the clever characters, incremental innovations and historical context behind the engines that gave birth to our modern world.

Rosen describes a “thousand threads” of developments dating back to the beginning of the modern world that culminated with the Rocket but also fueled the creation of increasingly better steam engines through the 18th and 19th centuries. Ancient Egyptians recognized the power of steam and France made some advances. But it was only in the 1700s in Britain that it was commercialized. Rosen colors in the assortment of scientists, entrepreneurs and tinkerers who made it happen—people like Thomas Savery, William Newcomen, James Watt and Matthew Boulton.

The book’s premise is that the Anglophone world—England, Scotland, Wales and America—was the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution because it “democratized the nature of invention.” Rosen makes a compelling argument that the steam engine is the quintessential example of that democratization at work.

I won’t spoil it by telling all the reasons why, but suffice it to say one of the most important was the advent of patent protection. Patents were a holdover of monopolies granted by kings over businesses such as sugar and tobacco, later evolving into the policy that people should be able to control their own inventions. That, of course, encouraged invention. Many of the early patents covered various aspects of steam power.

The book also highlights what is often an underestimated force in innovation: basic tools. Among the most important in the rise of steam power are measuring tools. Rosen argues that only with the ability to measure incremental advances—such as whether a lighter part lowers fuel consumption, or one engine produces more power than another—can you achieve sustained innovation. Rosen’s view fits my own view of the power of measurement to advance the work of our foundation. (I focused my2013 Annual Letter from the foundation on measurement and the amazing things you can accomplish in global health, education and other areas if you set clear goals and can measure your progress toward them.)

Rosen has a facility for the telling anecdote and the quirky aside. Open nearly any page of the book and you’ll learn tidbits like that Abraham Lincoln had a love of things mechanical and is the only American president to be awarded a patent (for air chambers that add buoyancy to steam ships and other boats). Early in the book there’s a reference to “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and Aristotle in the same paragraph. 

The Most Powerful Idea in the World is enjoyable reading, although it does go into a lot of detail about steam engines, and you will learn more about how they work than you might expect. With that one footnote, I highly recommend the book.


Bill Gates's Review:

In Science, We’re All Kids

Have you caught any episodes of Cosmos, featuring the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson? If you haven’t, you should. The show, an update to Carl Sagan’s classic 1980 series, aired a year ago and is available on a variety of streaming services. Recently I’ve been watching the series on DVD.

You don’t have to be a kid to get a lot out of this series. In science, we’re all kids. A good scientist is somebody who has redeveloped from scratch many times the chain of reasoning of how we know what we know, just to see where there are holes. So it can never hurt to revisit great scientific explanations like the ones Tyson shares. They help bolster your confidence in what you understand about how the world works. They help you consolidate your knowledge of how insights from physics, chemistry, and biology all fit together. They help you see science as approachable and not just endlessly complicated.

The Cosmos production team, which includes Sagan’s wife, clearly understands this. They did a great job of bringing the wonders of space and time to people with different levels of knowledge. And Tyson’s lifelong passion for scientific discovery comes through loud and clear.

Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist who held the Chair of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University endowed by my friend Charles Simonyi, has a similar gift for making science enjoyable. I’ve read many of his books over the years, including The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker. His antagonistic (and, to me, overzealous) view of religion has earned him a lot of angry critics, but I consider him to be one of the great scientific writer/explainers of all time.

I recently had a chance to read his book The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True. The book is as accessible as Cosmos is for younger audiences—and as relevant for older audiences. It’s an engaging, well-illustrated science textbook offering compelling answers to big questions, from how the universe formed to what causes earthquakes. It’s also a plea for readers of all ages to approach mysteries with rigor and curiosity, rather than buying into the supernatural myths at the core of most faith traditions.

Fortunately, Dawkins’s love of scientific exploration comes through more than his antipathy toward religion. He organizes each chapter around a question (e.g., “What is the sun?”) and begins the chapter with a litany of colorful explanatory myths offered by different cultures around the world. Then he shows us the elegant answers science has offered as the power of direct and indirect detection has expanded through the years. “I hope you agree that the truth has a magic of its own,” he writes. “The truth is more magical—in the best and most exciting sense of the word—than any myth or made-up mystery or miracle.”

I have only two disappointments about this book. First, I wish Dawkins had carved out the space to address some of the trickier areas of science like quantum mechanics, which really is fundamental to our understanding of the physical world and is at the core of many of our modern technologies.

Second, it’s too bad that some people may not read this book because of Dawkins’s strong views on religion. Even if Dawkins’s tone here is less contentious than usual, I fear this won’t get too far beyond the choir (to use a metaphor Dawkins might not appreciate). That’s too bad. 


If The Magic of Reality appeals to you, you might also check out the online course Big History (which I helped fund). It’s similar to Dawkins’s book in that they both set out to give you a comprehensive view—a framework for understanding how knowledge fits together—and then you can dive into different areas that interest you. It’s a great way to start or continue your learning journey, no matter how old you are.


Bill Gates's Review:

A World-Class Education

We’re spending twice as much on education today as we did 20 years ago. Yet, U.S. students ranked 17th in science, 25th in math, and 14th in reading in the latest data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the most widely used global assessment of student achievement.  Who’s beating the U.S. in these important categories – and how?

Vivien Stewart in her book, A World Class Education, looks at five countries—Singapore, Canada, Finland, China, and Australia—where students are doing significantly better on global assessments than students in the U.S. Despite differences in the political systems and cultural contexts of these countries, there are some common policies and practices that drive success. Understanding how other countries are succeeding can offer insights that help us do a better job here in the U.S. 

As Stewart points out, even a small improvement in the skills of a nation’s labor force can have a big impact on its economy. In a global market where companies can find well-educated workers in a growing number of countries —often at lower-cost— the U.S. will face greater competition if this trend continues. 

Finland is an interesting example because as recently as 1970, only 40 percent of Finnish adults held a high school diploma. Today, its students rank among the top on global assessments of student learning. 

One key to Finland’s success was the decision in 1979 to require a two-year master’s degree for all teachers, even those teaching primary school. Teachers are trained to spot students who aren’t doing well early on, and each school has a multidisciplinary team of education professionals available to support students and help them catch up. Finland also did away with traditional structure and replaced it with a more flexible approach that encourages creativity and problem solving, individualized learning, and a wider range of academic and vocational options.

The modernization of Finland’s education system has helped put it in the ranks of the most innovative and prosperous countries. Per capita GDP in Finland is higher than in the United Kingdom, France, or Japan. And teaching is a much sought-after profession that is held in high-regard.

Like Finland, Singapore decided that its future lay in tapping its human capital. In the Singapore system, all the key elements work closely together to produce continuous improvement. Over the last decade, Singapore has introduced innovative and flexible learning choices for students. It even has a policy called “teach less, learn more” that’s designed to encourage more innovative curricula and use of classroom time.

Singapore also is investing significantly in teachers—with strong teacher evaluation and personnel systems and intensive training. With all this, it’s not really a surprise that Singapore’s students rank near the top in international assessments, or that its per capita GDP is higher than the U.S., Canada, or most countries in Europe.

I agree with Stewart that the quality of student learning is only as good as the quality of the teachers. In the U.S., it will require investing in strong evaluation and development systems that involve teachers from the start, include multiple measures of effective teaching, and that fuse teacher evaluations with high-quality professional development.

I recommend this book as a good overview of what other countries are doing, although I would have liked to see more data. For example, the book spends very little time on the length of the school day or school year, which many people think are key factors in educational achievement. And it doesn’t explain how the U.S. manages to spend so much on education without having smaller class sizes or higher teacher pay.

All in all, it’s an interesting view into five countries which are making remarkable educational progress and that offer lessons for us in the U.S.


Bill Gates's Review:

Life Has Changed A Lot in 1,500 Years


Vaclav Smil has written another very informative book called Why America is Not a New Rome. This is the third book of his to come out this year. I have previously reviewed and recommended both of the others, which focus on energy. Although energy is not the primary topic of this book, Smil still does his normal, thorough, fact-driven logical job on this topic.

After reading so many articles and speeches predicting what will happen to America because of some supposed similarities to the Roman Empire, Smil felt it was important to explain that there is no predictive power in these comparisons. Smil is a great student of history, including Roman history and the dynamics of its Empire over time. Even though I took five years of Latin and enjoyed being able to understand some of the quotes in the book, my understanding of the Roman Empire was greatly expanded by reading this book.

Smil points out that the Roman Empire went through many phases over nearly two millennia–starting with a Republic and then with an Emperor and finally splitting into a Western Empire and Eastern Empire. The western part died out about 500 C.E. and the eastern part lasted until 1453. Although many theories have been put forward about what factors finally led to the empire’s demise, historians do not agree.

The key point of the book is that more than 1,500 years separate our current era from Roman times, and life has changed so much that any sense of similarity is illusory. In Roman times, people had barely enough food to sustain them. Human and animal muscle power comprised virtually the entire kinetic energy source. Life expectancy was between 20 and 30 years. Income levels were a fraction of what we have today. So the dynamics of “surviving” were completely different then.

Smil makes an important point regarding scientific and technical advances. Whereas U.S. innovation has played a central role in creating a modern global civilization in less than 150 years, “the Roman Empire had an unremarkable…record in advancing scientific understanding, and its overall contributions to technical and engineering innovations were…fairly limited.” By contrast, he notes, China’s Han dynasty, which overlapped several centuries with the Roman Empire, was far more innovative in ways that changed the world—such as the invention of paper, iron, ploughs, harnesses and many important nautical advances.

The primary similarity that Smil finds between the U.S. and ancient Rome is that people overestimate the dominance of both. At its peak, the Roman Empire comprised 12 percent of the world’s population. At the turn of the millennium, the U.S. represented just 4 percent of the global population. Militarily, the Roman Empire never controlled most of the world, just as the U.S. does not today.

Smil makes the case that the U.S. is not an empire by any reasonable definition of the word. Economically, the U.S. percentage of the world’s economic product in 2005 was 22.5 percent, with China, Brazil, Russia and many countries in the European Union continuing to gain in economic strength.

You could argue that America has some level of hegemony, but that is the strongest word that applies to our position. It is certainly interesting to discuss how the U.S. position will change in the future, but reaching back to Roman analogies will not aid in that discussion. Most references to Rome simply talk about things that are common to all large and long-lasting governments—complexity, disagreement, and some level of failed ambition.

Anyone expecting Smil to forecast the future of America will be disappointed but he does allude to a number of trends that are of serious concern. I hope this book will help us focus on fixing these trends without thinking that analogies from the Roman Empire will help us find the right approach.



Bill Gates's Review:

If We Can Get the Numbers Right, We Can Help More People

Even in the best financial times, budgets for development aid are hardly overflowing. Government leaders and donors have to make hard decisions about where to focus their limited resources. How do you decide which countries should get low-cost loans or cheaper vaccines, and which can afford to fund their own development programs?

Traditionally, one of the guiding factors has been per-capita Gross Domestic Product – the value of goods and services produced by a country in a year divided by the country’s population.

Yet there are problems with GDP as a statistic. It may be very inaccurate in the poorest countries. These problems are not just a concern for policymakers or hardcore people like me who read lots of World Bank reports. They are relevant for anyone who wants to use statistics to make the case for helping the world’s poorest people. The question of how we measure growth and improvements in people’s lives—and how we know what works—is very important.

I’ve long believed that GDP understates growth even in rich countries, where its measurement is quite sophisticated. This is because it’s so difficult to compare the value of baskets of goods across different time periods. In the U.S. for example, a set of encyclopedias in 1960 was expensive but held great value for families with studious kids. (I can speak from experience, having spent many hours with the World Book encyclopedias my parents bought for my sisters and me.) Now, thanks to the Internet, kids have access to far more information for free. How do you factor that into GDP? It’s very difficult.

The challenges with calculating GDP are particularly acute in sub-Saharan Africa, where weak national statistics offices and historical biases muddy the clarity of crucial measurements. Bothered by what he saw as problems in Zambia’s national statistics, Morten Jerven, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University, spent four years digging into how African nations get their statistics and the challenges they face in turning them into GDP estimates. He details his findings in a new book, Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled By African Development Statistics and What To Do About It, which makes a strong case that a lot of GDP measurements we thought were accurate are far from it.

Jerven notes that many countries in the region have trouble measuring the size of their relatively large subsistence economies and unrecorded economic activity. How do you account for the production of a farmer who grows and eats his own food? If subsistence farming is systematically underestimated, then as an economy moves out of subsistence, some of the apparent growth may be just a shift to something that is easier to capture with statistics.

There are other problems with GDP statistics for poor countries. For example, many countries in sub-Saharan Africa don’t update their reporting often enough, so their GDP numbers may miss large and fast-growing sectors of the economy, like cell phones. A few years ago, Ghana updated its reporting and its GDP jumped by 60 percent. But many people didn’t understand this was just a statistical anomaly, rather than an actual change in the standard of living there.

In addition, there are several ways to calculate GDP, and they can produce wildly different results. Jerven mentions three in particular: the World Development Indicators, which are published by the World Bank and by far the most commonly used dataset; the Penn World Table, released by the University of Pennsylvania; and the Maddison tables, published by the University of Groningen and based on work by the late economist Angus Maddison.

These groups use the same basic data as input, but they modify it in different ways to account for inflation and other factors. As a result, their rankings of different countries’ economies can vary widely. Liberia’s GDP ranks it as either 2nd poorest, 7th poorest, or 22nd poorest in Sub-Saharan Africa, depending on which source you consult. I have reproduced one of Jerven’s tables to show you three of the most striking examples.


Bill Gates's Review:

The Evolution of Energy Use

Vaclav Smil has written another important book on energy which is quite amazing. Although there are a lot of important books about energy, as an author Smil is in a class by himself in terms of breadth and depth.

His latest book, Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, Prospects, is only about 175 pages and very readable, although like all of Smil books you have to be comfortable with lots of numbers, since the topic requires them. The various units that energy and power are measured in can often confuse things.

In Energy Transitions, Smil explains the third great energy transition, which occurred over the last several hundred years and included the shift from wood to coal, and the rise of oil and natural gas. As he notes, this transition from biomass to fossil fuels “has been the very essence of modernization.” The first great energy transition was the mastery of fire and the second was associated with the move from foraging to sedentary crop raising and domestication of animals. This third transition really only got going in the late 19th century and did not affect most of humanity until well into the 20th century.

Smil computes the relative energy generated by humans and animals, and early “inanimate” energy technology such as wind power and water power before steam engines came along. And he shows what a small percentage of energy was produced by these inanimate technologies until the late 1800’s, except in the UK.

For each fuel type and each big application Smil explains the key breakthroughs. For natural gas it included new steel alloys, better welding, better pipe-laying, and new compressors invented after World War II. Smil points out that the time between the invention of a new energy technology and its widespread use is usually many decades. In the case of liquefied natural gas, for example, it was almost 100 years.

One section of the book discusses how energy transitions varied in different countries. For example, the Netherlands used its peat resources and wind for early energy intensification. The U.S. was slow to switch to coal – with coal surpassing wood as a primary fuel source only in the 1890’s. Although each of these countries faced very different circumstances in the evolution of their energy technologies, globalization means that our energy challenges going forward are shared.

In the final pages of the book Smil talks about what to expect from the fourth great energy transition, which we have just started. He shows that despite the desire for change “neither its pace not its compositional and operational details are yet clear.”

Smil makes clear the challenges involved in making renewable sources anywhere near as cheap as today’s high carbon energy. He describes the much lower power density of renewable sources and the challenges associated with location, intermittency, storage, and transmission. The intermittency/storage point is one I think he could have made even stronger. Even though this section overlaps with the other energy book he published this year (Energy Myths and Realities) it is still very much worth reading.

The book ends with Smil expressing disappointment that the U.S. and other wealthy countries have not done more to reduce energy usage. This is an important point, but I wish he had ended with a more detailed discussion of the fourth transition. While some people might not agree with everything Smil says, he has certainly taught me that, even with needed improvements in energy efficiency, it will be very difficult to get adequate amounts of cheap, carbon-neutral power to the poor very quickly, critical as that goal is.



Bill Gates's Review:

The New Science of Feeding the World

While traveling last week to Antarctica, I had a chance to read a book recommended by our foundation’s agricultural development group, Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food by Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak. 

This is an important book for anyone who wants to learn about the science of seeds and the challenges faced by farmers. It’s only 167 pages, and includes personal stories that give you a sense of the authors as people and how strongly they feel about farming, food and the environment. I think anyone who reads this book will be convinced of the authors’ sincerity and intelligence – even if, like me, you never try any of the cool-sounding recipes. 

Whenever I read about farming, I’m reminded how tough it is. Between the weather, weeds, viruses, insects and other pests, farming is a constant struggle, always posing new challenges. A city boy like me can think of it as putting a seed in the ground and waiting for nice stuff to grow. Wrong. 

Tomorrow’s Table is a real education on the many choices farmers today must make regarding seeds. It’s very good in explaining genetically engineered seed, how it’s used today (mostly to help plants fight off insects and tolerate herbicide) and how it will be used in the future (to increase disease resistance, drought tolerance, vitamin content and crop yields, for example). The book separates out clearly the issues of how to make sure new seeds are safe, how to price them and how to treat them as intellectual property. 

I gained an understanding of the history of organic farming and learned about some of the very clever ways organic farmers control pests. Compared with conventional agriculture, many organic techniques can be more cost effective for poor farmers. I agree with the authors that we will need the best ideas from "organic" thinkers and from scientists – including genetic engineers – to feed the world and help the poorest. 

Of course, there are more approaches available to farmers than just organic or biotech. Most of the world’s food is grown with conventional agricultural techniques such as improved seeds, fertilizer and irrigation. The trick is finding the best combination of all of these approaches. 

I certainly recommend this book to people who are curious about the future of agriculture and the controversies around it. Many other food books exalt localism and tradition (i.e., lack of new science) as almost religious values. I think some go overboard with their negative views of modern farming, giving very little thought to the productivity increases that poor farmers need - and that the world needs - in order to feed itself, while coping with climate change and evolving threats from plant disease and pests. 

I wish Tomorrow’s Table discussed the problem of underinvestment in agricultural research. But the authors’ personal involvement in what they do write about gives the book a note of deep sincerity. That may help get people who are skeptical or confused about new science, including biotechnology, to see that it has an important role to play.


Bill Gates's Review:

Challenging the Way We Look at the Works


I had a chance to read a prepublication copy SuperFreakonomics before it was officially released.

I really liked Freakonomics and I think SuperFreakonomics is even better.

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner like to cover a lot of ideas, in contrast to Malcolm Gladwell, whose books I like a lot too. Gladwell tends to take a few ideas and illustrate them in depth with a lot of examples.

I recommend this book to anyone who reads nonfiction. It is very well written and full of great insights.

I could be accused of bias in recommending it because I had some limited involvement in three of the stories.

In discussing U.S. health care, the authors work with Craig Feied and Mark Smith to use the data-gathering software now called Almaga which was bought by Microsoft. It is an amazing piece of technology with its ability to let you look at patient trends. The book explains how this data can be used to look at the quality of doctors and different medical procedures.

When they talk about how you might reduce hurricane damage, they mention Nathan Myhrvrold and the team at Intellectual Ventures and their idea to mix hot water on the surface of the ocean with cooler water below to reduce hurricane strength. Unfortunately the authors don’t figure out how the economics should work and who would authorize an experiment that would change the local weather with mostly good effects, but perhaps some bad effects as well.

When they focus on global warming they again mention Intellectual Ventures and you meet Lowell Wood and Ken Caldeira for a discussion of how geoengineering can probably delay the effects and provide many extra decades to make the changes in energy production and use that are necessary. Levitt and Dubner do a great job of describing the idea but don’t go into the question of how it should be applied.

One of my favorite things in the book is the debunking of many of the studies economists have done that they use as the basis for claiming that people are irrational in their choices. Dubner and Levitt cover new research that shows that the wrong conclusions were drawn. I think what researchers are seeing is a reflection of the social rewards/risks for the students involved in the tests rather than some basic flaw in human economic thinking.

The book also talks about how people underestimate how much life has improved in every way during the last 100 years. The example they use is the risk of dying in childbirth and how that has changed. They also talk about progress on diseases (particularly vaccines such as polio) and car safety. I knew that seat belts were an amazing intervention but I hadn’t realized how little extra safety airbags and children’s car seats provide on top of what is provided by the full use of seat belts.

One area where the book doesn’t quite get the story right is in discussing how important nitrogen fertilizer was in increasing food production. The Vaclav Smil book Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch and the Transformation of World Food Production tells this incredible story in great depth. SuperFreakonomics talks about ammonium nitrate as if it was the silver bullet that made the advance possible. There was some ammonium nitrate that was mined from South America but that quickly ran out. The real advance was the process to extract nitrogen gas from the air and turn it into the nitrogen compounds that plants can use.

There are tons more things in this book that you will find cool that I don’t mention.


Bill Gates's Review:

Challenging the Way We Look at the Works


I had a chance to read a prepublication copy SuperFreakonomics before it was officially released.

I really liked Freakonomics and I think SuperFreakonomics is even better.

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner like to cover a lot of ideas, in contrast to Malcolm Gladwell, whose books I like a lot too. Gladwell tends to take a few ideas and illustrate them in depth with a lot of examples.

I recommend this book to anyone who reads nonfiction. It is very well written and full of great insights.

I could be accused of bias in recommending it because I had some limited involvement in three of the stories.

In discussing U.S. health care, the authors work with Craig Feied and Mark Smith to use the data-gathering software now called Almaga which was bought by Microsoft. It is an amazing piece of technology with its ability to let you look at patient trends. The book explains how this data can be used to look at the quality of doctors and different medical procedures.

When they talk about how you might reduce hurricane damage, they mention Nathan Myhrvrold and the team at Intellectual Ventures and their idea to mix hot water on the surface of the ocean with cooler water below to reduce hurricane strength. Unfortunately the authors don’t figure out how the economics should work and who would authorize an experiment that would change the local weather with mostly good effects, but perhaps some bad effects as well.

When they focus on global warming they again mention Intellectual Ventures and you meet Lowell Wood and Ken Caldeira for a discussion of how geoengineering can probably delay the effects and provide many extra decades to make the changes in energy production and use that are necessary. Levitt and Dubner do a great job of describing the idea but don’t go into the question of how it should be applied.

One of my favorite things in the book is the debunking of many of the studies economists have done that they use as the basis for claiming that people are irrational in their choices. Dubner and Levitt cover new research that shows that the wrong conclusions were drawn. I think what researchers are seeing is a reflection of the social rewards/risks for the students involved in the tests rather than some basic flaw in human economic thinking.

The book also talks about how people underestimate how much life has improved in every way during the last 100 years. The example they use is the risk of dying in childbirth and how that has changed. They also talk about progress on diseases (particularly vaccines such as polio) and car safety. I knew that seat belts were an amazing intervention but I hadn’t realized how little extra safety airbags and children’s car seats provide on top of what is provided by the full use of seat belts.

One area where the book doesn’t quite get the story right is in discussing how important nitrogen fertilizer was in increasing food production. The Vaclav Smil book Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch and the Transformation of World Food Production tells this incredible story in great depth. SuperFreakonomics talks about ammonium nitrate as if it was the silver bullet that made the advance possible. There was some ammonium nitrate that was mined from South America but that quickly ran out. The real advance was the process to extract nitrogen gas from the air and turn it into the nitrogen compounds that plants can use.

There are tons more things in this book that you will find cool that I don’t mention.


by Neal Stephenson

Bill Gates's Review:

When I was younger, I read a ton of science fiction. I was up to date on all the big authors. Probably the one I read the most was Robert Heinlein—The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress was a particular favorite. But for the past decade or so, I haven’t read nearly as much sci-fi. I just got out of the habit.

So when a friend recommended Neal Stephenson’s most recent novel, Seveneves, I thought I would give it a try. I had read one of Stephenson’s earlier books, Snow Crash, and thought this new one would be a good way to get back into sci-fi. I’m really glad I did, because Seveneves is a thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable book.

The plot of Seveneves gets going when the moon blows up without warning and for no apparent reason. This isn’t a spoiler—it’s the first sentence of the book. “The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.” People figure out that in two years, chunks of the moon will rain down on Earth in a cataclysmic meteor shower, wiping out every living thing and leaving the planet uninhabitable for thousands of years. The world unites on a plan to get as many spacecraft as possible into orbit, where a few select people can ride out this Hard Rain and keep humanity going.

The book has so many cool ideas, memorable characters, and good storylines that I can’t cover them all. So I will just touch on two things that really struck me.

One is Stephenson’s writing on technology. Seveneves belongs in the subgenre of hard science fiction, which means it emphasizes scientific accuracy. Everything adheres to physical laws, so unlike Star Wars, no one travels anywhere near the speed of light. Stephenson tells you not just what happens, but how it happens. You’ll learn all about how orbits work and what it takes to connect two spacecraft in different orbits. You’ll learn the difference between fuel and propellant. There’s a long but clever passage about a woman who flies from Earth into orbit in a glider while wearing a suit made of intelligent fabric.

Personally I loved all that stuff. But if you’re the sort of reader who doesn’t care how such a thing might work, you will find yourself skimming parts of Seveneves.

The other thing that struck me is the way the book pushes you to think big and long-term. If everyone learned that the world would end two days from now, there would be global panic, plus a big dose of hedonism. But what if it were ending two years from now? Would people keep going to work? Would kids go to school? If they did, what would you teach them?

In the last third of the book, there’s a fascinating exploration of the connection between culture and genetics. If only a few humans survived and had to start all over, what would happen to distinctions of class and race? How much are you shaped by your genes, your family’s history, and your own experiences? In the wrong hands, this material could be dreary, but Stephenson does a good job of exploring it while moving the story along.

It helps that he throws in other nice touches to keep you thinking. The title is a palindrome, though how that’s relevant is left up to you. The number 7 from the title turns out to matter in more than one way. And you might enjoy trying to figure out which characters were inspired by real people. There’s a famous astrophysicist/science explainer who sounds a lot like Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Seveneves reminded me of all the things I love about science fiction. It is a great novel to get lost in, learn from, and think about. More than anything else, it has me thinking I should get back to reading sci-fi again.


Interventions: A Life in War and Peace
by Kofi Annan, Nader Mousavizadeh

Bill Gates's Review:

Kofi Annan Recalls 10 Years at the United Nations

I’ve met former Secretary General Kofi Annan several times and admire his work—particularly on behalf of Africa—a great deal. In fact, I was a bit envious when Melinda recently had the opportunity to spend several days with him on an agricultural learning trip to Tanzania.

Annan served as Secretary-General of the United Nations for 10 years. In 2001, he received the Nobel Peace Prize—along with the UN—for his efforts to reform the organization, his commitment to human rights, and his commitment to tackling terrorism and HIV/AIDS.

Only after reading his recently-published book, Interventions: A Life in War and Peace, did I get a true sense of how difficult a job he had. As a voluntary organization of 192 states, it’s easy to criticize the effectiveness of the UN, but without it, we would be substantially further behind on issues of global health and development.

It was helpful to learn about the other side of Annan’s work at the UN—peacekeeping issues and the work of the Security Council. It is clearly very challenging work. One day, the Secretary-General has to be an impartial arbiter of disputes among member states. The next, he has to challenge member countries he believes are not acting in the interest of world peace. Surviving in that position for 10 years says a lot about Annan’s diplomatic skills.

For all of the difficulties he experienced on the peacekeeping side of the equation, his work on development and global health can’t be emphasized enough. In 2000, during Annan’s tenure, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were agreed to by all UN member countries and 23 international organizations. The MDGs are an ambitious set of goals for reducing poverty and child mortality rates, and fighting diseases that sap the socioeconomic potential of poor countries.   (I’m writing my annual letter at the moment, and I’m talking about the MDGs in more detail there, so it’s top of mind for me at the moment.)

Although a number of countries won’t be able to achieve all of the goals by the target date of 2015, the MDGs provide clear targets and indicators of progress in key areas, such as ending poverty and hunger, ensuring universal education, gender equality, improving child and maternal health, combatting HIV/AIDS, environmental sustainability, and strengthening global development.

Annan also played an important role in creating the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria—the main funder of efforts to fight three of the world’s biggest health challenges.

For anybody who wants to understand the complexities of the role of the Secretary General, this book is an illuminating read. 


Bill Gates's Review:

Walter Lewin of MIT Teaches Physics


Some of my favorite online videos are physics lectures by Walter Lewin of MIT. Lewin is an incredible teacher who’s passionate about the beauty of physics and its power as a way of looking at the world. He really brings science to life. One of his famous classroom demonstrations, which is on video, involves a pendulum that you think is going to hit him and hurt him, but because it’s slowly losing momentum it never quite touches him, although it comes so close that it’s a bit scary.

Part of what makes Lewin a great teacher is that he has a lot of energy and enthusiasm, and fun ways of explaining things. If he ever explains something the wrong way on his videos and a viewer catches it, even a small mistake, Lewin inserts a little video pointing out his error—he has a nice way of saying “oops” about things. 

He began teaching when he was very young at a school his parents ran in the Netherlands, a school that taught business skills. When he got to MIT, he put a lot of his energy and enthusiasm into an introductory physics course. It’s famous for his demonstrations, which raise questions, which lead to more demonstrations, which lead to answers and equations—instead of starting with the equations. 

Lewin’s teaching skills come through in his wonderful book, For the Love of Physics, which is good even if you don't know much physics. He'll introduce a mystery and then show how you can understand it with just a little bit of physics. He helps you appreciate that physics is pretty basic stuff. Like, what is metal?  What is it good at?  Why can we build big buildings today and cars and planes, but hundreds of years ago they couldn't do that stuff?  Why are there stars and what's going on in a star?  And why can phones work?  Wireless phones?  And what is a microchip, what's going on there? 

Fortunately, if you understand just a few physics concepts, like electromagnetism and gravity, you can understand a lot, like how a global positioning system works, or how a DVD can store a movie. That’s why everybody should know some physics. Not necessarily relativity, maybe, or about all the weird sub-particles beyond protons, neutrons and electrons. But it would be great if people knew what Newton knew and other physicists knew up to around the year 1890. Then you can understand why things orbit and fall, and what’s going on when two cars crash. A little bit of physics goes a long way in helping you understand a huge number of things. 

Lewin believes that all science, even theoretical physics, is ultimately experimental. That’s why he’s skeptical of ideas like string theory, which do not yield experimental predictions. I wish more people shared Lewin’s appreciation for observation, measurement and data—especially in debates over incredibly important matters that concern me very much, like public finance, climate change, education reform and vaccinations. In our foundation’s work, we try hard to make sure that our efforts are based on good data and subject to rigorous evaluations based on the evidence. The data sometimes surprises or disappoints us, but we need to confront it if we’re going to have any chance of being successful in the long run.

Lewin is an inspiring example of a scientist who is dedicated to careful observation, measurement and experimentation, the most reliable routes to real knowledge. He is unique, but we all can learn a lot—about teaching and life, as well as physics—from him, his lectures and For the Love of Physics.


Bill Gates's Review:

A Clear Look at the Great Panic


I just read David Wessel’s book In Fed We Trust: Ben Bernanke’s War on the Great Panic.

The author does a very good job of explaining how things looked to Bernanke as the situation progressed, and how novel the steps that the Fed took really were.

The author does a good job of not using hindsight to evaluate all of the moves, while being clear about where things could have been done better.

He also separates out the substance of the approaches from the way those approaches were communicated since they both are important and sometimes the biggest mistake was in the communication.

The key players—particularly Bernanke but also Paulson—did a great job handling this crisis.

The book—like most—is not very numeric. It doesn’t explain why balance sheets went from looking good to looking bad and what the surprise factor was.

It doesn’t explain how much risk there is in the various efforts undertaken by the Fed.

But if someone wants to understand what happened during what they call the “Great Panic,” this is one of the books they should be read.

I still don’t understand a lot, including how people look at these crises.

We have had a shadow banking system for a long time and plenty of time to get ready – not just the time between the collapse of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers but all of the time that has passed since Long-Term Capital Management collapsed in 1998.

It would be interesting to think about conducting “war games” to examine what would happen in bad scenarios? This stuff will happen again and the current proposals seem to miss many key things that should be done.

Who should be around to handle Sunday night bankruptcies – should it really be a Federal judge with no particular expertise who is called on at the last minute?

If the problem is that some banks are too big to fail, why aren’t increased fees and other disincentives for size placed on larger entities?

Shouldn’t there be a design where something the size of Bear Stearns shouldn’t cause a problem?

Should the balance sheets (all liabilities and assets) of these entities be in a computerized form that regulators have access to on a real time basis, including analytics?

Many of the problems during these crises require data to be reviewed very rapidly and technology can improve that very dramatically.

(This would force the liabilities in derivatives to be expressed in a standardized form, reducing some of the one-off nature they have.)

Why wasn’t the systemic risk of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac easily dimensionalized in a numeric way to force a discussion of whether taxpayers should take the downside of large housing price declines like they have?

The ideas that Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan, has proposed for using fees during good times to build up a large reserve for when things are bad – something counter-cyclical – seems like an important approach to me.

There are so many pro-cyclical elements in finance and the economy—from pensions to state budgets to stock options that some things are needed to offset them.

I am hoping there will be a book on this topic that is more numeric in its approach.


Bill Gates's Review:

Chris’s story is told well in Jeremy Smith’s book Epic Measures: One Doctor. Seven Billion Patients,which came out earlier this year. It’s a highly readable account for anyone who wants to know more about Chris’s work and why it matters. As Smith says, it is “the story of a huge independent effort, years in preparation, to do nothing less than chart everything that threatens the health of everyone on Earth, and make that information publicly available to doctors, health officials, political leaders, and private citizens everywhere.”

I visit the GBD data visualizations a few times each month. It takes a while to get good at finding your way around the tools, but once you do, they are amazingly informative. There are more than a billion entries in the database, covering several hundred causes of death and disease. Recently Melinda and I were trying to understand suicide rates in different countries—and how they differ among men and women—and we quickly found the information we were looking for. (It turns out that in some countries the male/female gap is more than 5 to 1, while in others it is more like 1 to 1.)

The idea behind Chris’s work is simple: We can’t cure what we don’t understand. If we know what the biggest killers are, we can make sure our efforts to save lives are aimed at the right things. And we can learn what works. In this TGN post you can watch Chris use the GBD to explain how setting goals and measuring progress has helped drive huge gains in health—which is one reason I’m optimistic about the new Global Goals being adopted this month at the United Nations. (Melinda and I will be there to help spread the word about the goals.)

What I love most about the GBD is the way it democratizes information. Much of the data was available previously, but it was scattered around the world—buried in various countries’ databases and in printed reports that gathered dust on office shelves. The GBD brings it all together, synthesizes it, and makes it available to everyone. Thanks to input from experts around the world, it keeps getting more accurate. It is slowly becoming the standard go-to resource for health data in rich and poor countries alike.

Epic Measures gives you a good sense of why all this is so important. Smith writes, “With a truly all-encompassing view of life and death, we can see for the first time if Europe is healthier than America, or Iowa than Ohio, or you than your neighbor. And then in what ways. And how people are responding, with specific details everyone else around the world can try to emulate.”

I agree—and I would add that the GBD is another example of how technology is making it easier to save and improve lives everywhere. As Epic Measures shows, the more we make sure reliable information gets out there, the better decisions we all can make, and the more impact we all can have.


Bill Gates's Review:

Is There Enough Meat for Everyone?

Another thing Smil loves to do is question the conventional wisdom. For example, you may have read that raising meat for food requires a lot of water. This has been in the news lately because of the drought in California. Estimates vary, but the consensus is that between watering the animals, cleaning up after them, and growing crops to feed them (far and away the biggest use), it takes several thousand liters of water to produce one kilogram of boneless beef.

But Smil shows you how the picture is more complicated. It turns out that not all water is created equal. Nearly 90 percent of the water needed for livestock production is what’s called green water, used to grow grass and such. In most places, all but a tiny fraction of green water comes from rain, and because most green water eventually evaporates back into the atmosphere, it’s not really consumed.

As Smil writes, “the same water molecules that were a part of producing Midwestern corn to feed pigs in Iowa may help to grow, just a few hours later, soybeans in Illinois… or, a week later, grass grazed by beef cattle in Wales.” One study that excluded green water found that it takes just 44 liters—not thousands—to produce a kilo of beef. This is the kind of thing Smil excels at: using facts and analysis to examine widely held beliefs.

Returning to the question at hand—how can we make enough meat without destroying the planet?—one solution would be to ask the biggest carnivores (Americans and others) to cut back, by as much as half. Although it might be possible to get people in richer countries to eat less or shift toward less-intensive meats like chicken, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect large numbers of people to make drastic reductions. Evolution turned us into omnivores.

But there are reasons to be optimistic. For one thing, the world’s appetite for meat may eventually level off. Consumption has plateaued and even declined a bit in many rich countries, including France, Germany, and the United States. I also believe that innovation will improve our ability to produce meat. Cheaper energy and better crop varieties will drive up agricultural productivity, especially in Africa, so we won’t have to choose as often between feeding animals and feeding people.

I’m also hopeful about the future of meat substitutes. I have invested in some companies working on this and am impressed with the results so far. Smil is skeptical that it will have a big impact—and it is true that today the best products are sold mostly in fancy grocery stores—but I think it has potential.

With a little moderation and more innovation, I do believe the world can meet its need for meat.


Bill Gates's Review:

Complex Issues in the Energy Sector


I had a chance to talk with Yergin when we were both at the ECO:nomics conference hosted by the Wall Street Journal. He’s an impressive guy and a true expert in energy. He’s also an extremely articulate writer, as evidenced by his Pulitzer prize for his early work on oil, The Prize.

Yergin is best known as an expert on the oil and gas industries, but The Quest is quite comprehensive in looking at many different kinds of energy. It covers a lot of ground and is filled with a ton of facts and data. But it’s a fast read because Yergin relays information through stories that are very well told.

I found Yergin’s account of the history of oil exploration to be useful because it helps bring perspective to discussions of whether we’re in danger of running out of oil, whether production is likely to peak soon. Throughout history and still today, we keep finding more oil than we use. Reserves today are higher than at any time in history, not only for oil but also for natural gas and coal. This may be good news for traditional energy, but it shouldn’t lull us into complacency about aggressively pursuing low-carbon and no-carbon energy technology.

Yergin critiques the overly simplistic idea that we’re running out of oil, but he also questions the techno-optimists because of the costs and complexities involved in building new energy systems. He gives you the data to understand better what’s likely to happen in the future, but doesn’t try to pretend that he knows how everything will turn out. He doesn’t try to predict when or if solar energy will be cheap enough to compete with traditional energy sources, or whether we’ll get breakthrough batteries. 

There are many complex issues in the energy sector. I’m most concerned with the impact of different energy sources and what they could mean for the world’s poorest and for carbon emissions overall. That’s why I wish Yergin had included an overview of the energy-for-transportation market, which is basically oil, versus the energy-for-electricity market, which is a mix of gas, coal, nuclear and renewables. The two markets are basically separate today, but will they stay that way? Will electric cars really take over? Will we be able to convert natural gas and coal into liquids? 

His book is a real contribution to a debate that deserves far more attention, in my view. At 816 pages, it’s a commitment, but one that you’ll find worthwhile thanks to Yergin’s expertise as an energy expert and writer.


Modernist Cuisine at Home
by Nathan Myhrvold, Maxime Bilet

Bill Gates's Review:

Can Science Improve Cooking?



I’m always quite interested in learning about the science involved in our everyday lives. Take, for example, cooking. There’s a lot of interesting physics, chemistry and biology involved in how food tastes, how cooking changes its taste, and why we like some tastes and not others. So, for me, Nathan Myhrvold’s new book, Modernist Cuisine, is fantastic.

I’ve known Nathan for more than 25 years. He’s a brilliant guy, a physicist. At Microsoft, he did an amazing job of launching our research group. Later he created Intellectual Ventures. IV is a company built around inventions in many different fields, like using lasers to kill mosquitoes and fight malaria. Nathan has always been interested in cooking, and right next to the IV laboratory where they build prototypes of their inventions, there’s a cooking lab where Modernist Cuisine was developed and tested.

The book is really more like an encyclopedia than a cookbook, although it has some incredible recipes. It explains a lot about the science of cooking, and explores new food-preparation techniques that bring out amazing new flavors. A lot of the recipes involve preparation techniques that probably wouldn’t have been possible a decade ago, like using liquid nitrogen to rapidly cool food to very low temperatures, which dramatically changes its texture and taste.

Nathan brought a bunch of great chefs together to work on the book, and he hired a great photographer and designers to illustrate it. Gradually the book got bigger and bigger. The final result is six volumes, weighs 40 pounds, and has 1,500 recipes and 3,200 photos. The pictures alone make the book a masterpiece. You can see how food changes as it cooks, and understand how different flavors come together to make something really great.

When Nathan gets involved in something, he goes all out, and in this case he’s really dived deep into the science and technology of cooking, explaining things like why we like meat so much, and why cream-based sauces are so good. Which leads to interesting questions, like could we create those tastes in ways that are less expensive, less fattening, and less work? At almost $500, Modernist Cuisine will be out of reach for many people, but for aficionados who want to understand everything there is to know about what they’re cooking and eating, it is a huge contribution.



Bill Gates's Review:

Great Stories from a Very Smart Guy


So it’s no surprise that I’m really pleased to see Carol Loomis’ book on Warren published this month.Tap Dancing to Work: Warren Buffett on Practically Everything, 1966-2012 is a compilation of forty-plus years’ worth of coverage of Warren by the writers of Fortune, with a notable share written by Warren’s longtime friend, Carol Loomis. Inside are pieces by Carol, other Fortune writers, some essays by Warren himself, and there’s even a reprint of a piece I wrote in 1996 about our friendship.

It’s fairly well known that I almost didn’t meet Warren. My mom and dad had invited him, Katharine Graham and Meg Greenfield to the family’s weekend home, and my mother really insisted that I meet him, in spite of my pushing back hard that I had too much to do to take a day off to meet “some guy who picked stocks.” But from the moment we started talking, I could tell this was an extraordinary individual, whose intellect and business insights were astounding. I realized that day I had met a genius. I have felt that way ever since that July afternoon in 1991 and have never passed up an opportunity to learn more from him about business. In the process, I’ve also learned a great deal from him about life.

Tap Dancing to Work is a comprehensive look into Warren’s thinking about business and investing. The stories in the book are arranged roughly chronologically. I think anyone who reads it cover to cover will come away with two reactions: First, how Warren’s been incredibly consistent in applying his vision and investment principles over the duration of his career; and, secondly, that his analysis and understanding of business and markets remains unparalleled. I wrote in 1996 that I’d never met anyone who thought about business in such a clear way. That is certainly still the case.

Carol Loomis has done us all a big favor in pulling together this collection and writing quite thoughtful introductions to the major pieces. Examining the arc of Warren’s business life in his own words and those of other gifted observers (preeminently, Carol Loomis, herself) is an extremely worthwhile use of time to get into the mind of this remarkable business leader and philanthropist. I hope many people, even those who think they know Warren well, will read it cover to cover. I know I will.



Bill Gates's Review:

Where Do Vaccine Fears Come From?

I have new perspective on the power of those fears after reading On Immunity, by the Northwestern University lecturer and essayist Eula Biss. When I stumbled across the book on the Internet, I thought it might be a worthwhile read. I had no idea what a pleasure reading it would be. 

I also had no idea how informative it would be, even for someone like me who has been supporting and learning about vaccine research for many years. A lot of people who talk about vaccines—no matter what side they’re on—don’t invest the time to understand the topic. But Biss really did her homework. Like many of us, she concludes that vaccines are safe, effective, and almost miraculous tools for protecting our children against needless suffering.

She is not out to demonize anyone who holds opposing views. She’s a new mother who empathizes with other parents trying to make the best decisions for their children.

What makes this book so good and unusual is how effortlessly Biss moves around different topics. Her father is an oncologist and her mother a poet, which probably helps to explain how Biss so easily navigates the worlds of science and literature. And she’s just as good when she draws on insights from psychology, sociology, women’s studies, history, and philosophy.

One of the virtues of crossing so many boundaries is that it helps expand the way we view these issues. On the cover of the March National Geographic, the magazine’s editors depict vaccine refusal as an iconic example of a “war on science.” But Biss argues persuasively that distrust of science is just one factor. She explores many different things that have triggered people’s fears: pharmaceutical companies, big government, elites, toxic polluters, the medical establishment, male authority, and even vampires.

In an era when trust in just about every institution is waning, those of us who are working to increase vaccination rates face a daunting convergence of fears. What can we do to address them? First, we cannot just dismiss them as ignorant or “anti-science.” Second, I believe we have to accept that good news about vaccines is inherently slow and fears are inherently fast. The words of national experts and eloquent writers like Biss can make a difference, but when it comes to slow ideas, people are most influenced by those they know and trust—friends, family members, doctors, and teachers. As Gawande writes, “Going ‘low touch,’ without sandals on the ground,” just doesn’t work. “People talking to people is still how the world’s standards change.” 


Bill Gates's Review:

A New Look at a Complex Man


A biography of Joseph Kennedy, head of one of the great political dynasties in the U.S. There was a lot I didn’t know about him.

Here’s the publisher’s description for the book The Patriarch, by David Nasaw:

Celebrated historian David Nasaw brings to life the story of Joseph Patrick Kennedy, in this, the first and only biography based on unrestricted and exclusive access to the Joseph P. Kennedy papers.

Joseph Patrick Kennedy—whose life spanned the First World War, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the Cold War—was the patriarch of America’s greatest political dynasty. The father of President John F. Kennedy and senators Robert and Edward Kennedy, “Joe” Kennedy was an indomitable and elusive figure whose dreams of advancement for his nine children were matched only by his extraordinary personal ambition and shrewd financial skills. Trained as a banker, Kennedy was also a Hollywood mogul, a stock exchange savant, a shipyard manager, the founding chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and ambassador to London during the Battle of Britain. Though his incredible life encompasses the very heart of the American century, Joseph Kennedy has remained shrouded in rumor and prejudice for decades.

Drawing on never-before-published material from archives on three continents, David Nasaw—the renowned biographer of Andrew Carnegie and William Randolph Hearst—unearths a man far more complicated than the popular portrait. Was Kennedy an appeaser and isolationist, an anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer, a stock swindler, a bootlegger, and a colleague of mobsters? Did he push his second son into politics and then buy his elections for him? Why did he have his daughter Rosemary lobotomized? Why did he oppose the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the Korean War, and American assistance to the French in Vietnam? What was his relationship to J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI? How did he influence his son’s politics and policies in the White House? In this groundbreaking biography Nasaw ignores the tired old answers surrounding Kennedy, starting from scratch to discover the truth behind this misunderstood man.

Though far from a saint, Joseph Kennedy in many ways exemplifies the best in American political, economic, and social life. His rags-to-riches story is one of exclusion and quiet discrimination overcome by entrepreneurship, ingenuity, and unshakable endurance. Kennedy’s story deserves to be told in full, with no holds barred, and Nasaw’s magnificent The Patriarch is the first book to do so.


Bill Gates's Review:

Humans are Using Up Earth’s Biomass

By “this,” I don’t just mean the rainforest you see in this photo. I mean everything that can be consumed on Earth: plants, animals, all of it. And by “we” of course I mean people.

It’s such a big question that many people wouldn't even know where to start.

But if you care about understanding the impact that humans are having on the Earth, and what that means for our future, it’s a crucial question. Vaclav Smil sets out to answer it in his book Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken From Nature.

There is no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil. He jokes that no one reads his books (he’s written more than 30 of them). It’s true that each book only sells a few thousand copies. But I’m trying to read everything he writes.

Why? He understands a phenomenal range of subjects, from energy to agriculture. On any page he might talk about meat-eating among bonobos or the average human life span during the Roman Empire. Plus he is rigorously numeric, using data to illuminate every topic he writes about. The word “polymath” was invented to describe people like him.

In Harvesting the Biosphere, Smil gives as clear and as numeric a picture as is possible of how humans have altered the biosphere. The book is a bit dry and I had to look up a number of terms that were unfamiliar to me, but it tells a critical story.

Smil starts with a big question: How much life is there in the biosphere? By “biosphere,”he means everywhere on earth where there are living things: in the air, on the ground, and in the oceans. I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about measurement this year, and I was very impressed with how rigorously he thinks about this problem. Ultimately he concludes that the dry mass of all living things on Earth is about 1.6 trillion metric tons. (Because living things contain different amounts of water, Smil makes these calculations using dry mass, which leaves out the water.)

Smil tries to figure out what portion of the biosphere's primary productivity—the amount of plant life generated each year by photosynthesis—is consumed by humans. He estimates that we will harvest roughly 17 percent of what the biosphere grows this year—mostly plants. (He admits it could be as little as 15 percent or as much as 25 percent.)


The Cost of Hope: A Memoir
by Amanda Bennett

Bill Gates's Review:

A Very Personal Struggle with the U.S. Healthcare System


Amanda Bennett’s memoir, The Cost of Hope tells a very human story about her husband Terence and his battle against a rare form of kidney cancer. Amanda’s story is personal, filled with moments of anguish, grief and love but she also tries to draw attention to what she discovers is a flawed health care system. It is a perfect example about why all of the hard decisions about health care spending are just that.

What makes this memoir interesting is that there are not many books where the author speaks first-hand about the administration of our health care system or gives real life explanations to the current cost crisis.

An executive editor at Bloomberg News and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Bennett is an ultra-thorough researcher and applied her trade as an investigative reporter to try to decipher the complexity of her husband’s medical bills in the years after he died. She wanted to understand the maze of medical bills and, she writes, “what they would show about end-of-life care—its science, emotions, and costs.”

For Amanda and Terence there were only a few moments of financial stress because she had very good health insurance provided by her employers during his seven-year illness. In Amanda’s words, “as we made our way through a series of expensive last chances…we didn't have to think about money, allocation of medical resources, the struggles of roughly 46 million uninsured Americans, or the impact on corporate bottom lines.”

Their contribution to medical expenses was minimal and since there was no impetus to account for the cost of each procedure or drug, it wasn’t until Amanda puzzled over the 5000 pages of documents from insurers, hospitals and doctors that she realized just how expensive treatment had been. Medical care totaled $618,616 but, she writes, “For me, it was about pushing the bell curve. Knowing there was something to be done, we couldn't not do it.  It is hard to put a price on that kind of hope.”



Bill Gates's Review:

Peter Buffett on What He Learned Growing Up

Peter Buffett recently published a terrific book, titled Life is What You Make It. Peter writes about the values he absorbed growing up as the son of Warren Buffett and his late mother, Susan Buffett, and the path he has pursued to identify and pursue his passions in life.

I knew Peter was passionate about music. He’s an Emmy-Award-winning musician and songwriter, has composed for film and television, and released more than 15 albums. But the focus of his book is a reflection of his broader life experiences—in particular the values, work ethic and commitment to social action that he learned growing up in the modest Buffett family home in Omaha, Nebraska.

Contrary to what many people might assume, Peter won’t inherit great wealth from his father. Instead, he was encouraged by his parents to find his own path. The book is a chronicle of that journey—and the wisdom and perceptions he has developed along the way.

In particular, Peter’s insights about the four core values he “absorbed” growing up in the Buffett home really resonated with me. They are:


  • Trust in the belief that the world is fundamentally a good place and that all people, however, flawed, are—at the core—well-intentioned
  • Tolerance for other people’s viewpoints and perspectives
  • A passion for education—not in the traditional sense but as a way to approach life with curiosity and an openness to what others have to teach us
  • A personal work ethic grounded in self-discovery and a commitment to finding something that you wake up every morning looking forward to

Melinda and I have both read it and like it a lot. We’ve known Peter for many years because of our friendship with Warren, and the whole Buffett family. It’s a thoughtful and touching book, and we plan on reading it with our older children.


Material World: A Global Family Portrait
by Peter Menzel, Charles C. Mann, Paul Kennedy

Bill Gates's Review:

The car I drive to work is made of around 2,600 pounds of steel, 800 pounds of plastic, and 400 pounds of light metal alloys. The trip from my house to the office is roughly four miles long, all surface streets, which means I travel over some 15,000 tons of concrete each morning.

Once I’m at the office, I usually open a can of Diet Coke. Over the course of the day I might drink three or four. All those cans also add up to something like 35 pounds of aluminum a year.

I got to thinking about all this after reading Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization, by my favorite author, the historian Vaclav Smil. Not only did I learn some mind-blowing facts, but I also gained a new appreciation for all the materials that make modern life possible....

I agree with Smil that humans have an amazing capacity for finding ways around scarcity by using materials more efficiently, recycling them, or finding substitutes. The big concern isn’t so much whether we will run out of anything—it’s the impact that extracting and using these materials is having on the planet. For example, the cement industry now accounts for about 5 percent of all carbon-dioxide emissions. That’s one reason I think that developing affordable energy that produces zero carbon is one of the most important things we can do to lift people out of poverty.

I’m also surprised that the oceans get so little attention compared with other environmental problems, and I think they deserve more. They are being overfished and the waters are turning more acidic, killing off coral reefs around the world. Smil cites estimates that at least 6.4 million tons of plastic litter enter the oceans every year. We may have already done irreparable damage to these precious resources.

Above all, I love to read Smil because he resists hype. He’s an original thinker who never gives simple answers to complex questions. He gives me a lot to think about on my drive to work, before my first Diet Coke of the day.


Bill Gates's Review:

This is an interesting look at how New York City reduced its crime rate exponentially, without increasing its prison population.

Here’s the publisher’s description for the book The City that Became Safe, by Franklin E. Zimring:

The forty-percent drop in crime that occurred across the U.S. from 1991 to 2000 remains largely an unsolved mystery. Even more puzzling is the eighty-percent drop over nineteen years in New York City. Twice as long and twice as large, it is the largest crime decline on record.

In The City That Became Safe, Franklin E. Zimring seeks out the New York difference through a comprehensive investigation into the city’s falling crime rates. The usual understanding is that aggressive police created a zero-tolerance law enforcement regime that drove crime rates down. Is this political sound bite true-are the official statistics generated by the police accurate? Though zero-tolerance policing and quality-of-life were never a consistent part of the NYPD’s strategy, Zimring shows the numbers are correct and argues that some combination of more cops, new tactics, and new management can take some credit for the decline That the police can make a difference at all in preventing crime overturns decades of conventional wisdom from criminologists, but Zimring also points out what most experts have missed: the New York experience challenges the basic assumptions driving American crime- and drug-control policies.

New York has shown that crime rates can be greatly reduced without increasing prison populations. New York teaches that targeted harm reduction strategies can drastically cut down on drug related violence even if illegal drug use remains high. And New York has proven that epidemic levels of violent crime are not hard-wired into the populations or cultures of urban America. This careful and penetrating analysis of how the nation's largest city became safe rewrites the playbook on crime and its control for all big cities.


Why Does College Cost So Much?
by Robert B. Archibald, David H. Feldman

Bill Gates's Review:

Making College More Affordable

There’s a lot of concern about the cost of college. This book puts tuition in the context of the larger economy, and offers suggestions for policy to increase access.

Here’s the publisher’s description for the book Why Does College Cost So Much?, by Robert B. Archibald and David H. Feldman:

Much of what is written about colleges and universities ties rapidly rising tuition to dysfunctional behavior in the academy. Common targets of dysfunction include prestige games among universities, gold plated amenities, and bloated administration. This book offers a different view. To explain rising college cost, the authors place the higher education industry firmly within the larger economic history of the United States. The trajectory of college cost is similar to cost behavior in many other industries, and this is no coincidence. Higher education is a personal service that relies on highly educated labor. A technological trio of broad economic forces has come together in the last thirty years to cause higher education costs, and costs in many other industries, to rise much more rapidly than the inflation rate. The main culprit is economic growth itself.

This finding does not mean that all is well in American higher education. A college education has become less reachable to a broad swathe of the American public at the same time that the market demand for highly educated people has soared. This affordability problem has deep roots. The authors explore how cost pressure, the changing wage structure of the US economy, and the complexity of financial aid policy combine to reduce access to higher education below what we need in the 21st century labor market. 

This book is a call to calm the rhetoric of blame and to instead find policies that will increase access to higher education while preserving the quality of our colleges and universities.


Bill Gates's Review:

Can the U.S. President Drive Social Change?

I read a lot about Teddy Roosevelt last year, around the time Melinda and I took our kids to the Panama Canal. He was instrumental in getting the canal built, and I’d assumed it was the highlight of his career. So it’s a testament to the breadth and depth of Roosevelt’s accomplishments that the canal warrants only a handful of mentions in this biography. There’s just too much other fascinating material competing for space, from Roosevelt’s relationship with the press and his friendship with William Howard Taft (who was brilliant in his own right) to his efforts to fight corruption and reform the political system.

I’m especially interested in the central question that Doris Kearns Goodwin raises in The Bully Pulpit: How does social change happen? Can it be driven by a single inspirational leader, or do other factors have to lay the groundwork first? Sometimes a single leader can make a big difference: In the field of global health, Jim Grant almost single-handedly created a global constituency for children, sparking a movement to double vaccination rates and save millions of lives. But Roosevelt’s case was different. Although he tried to push through a number of political reforms earlier in his career, he wasn’t really successful until journalists at McClure’s and other publications had rallied public support for change.

I loved Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, about President Lincoln, and highly recommend this one too.


xkcd: volume 0
by Randall Munroe

Bill Gates's Review:

The Addams Family Does Science

This is one of two Randall Munroe books I’ve read, and it is (by design) the funnier of the pair. It’s a collection of posts from his blog XKCD, which is made up of cartoons he draws making fun of things—mostly scientists and computers, but lots of other things too. There’s one about scientists holding a press conference to reveal their discovery that life is arsenic-based. They research press conferences and find out that sometimes it’s good to serve food that’s related to the subject of the conference. The last panel is all the reporters dead on the floor because they ate arsenic. It’s that kind of humor, which not everybody loves, but I do.

Here’s my review of the other Munroe book I’ve read, What If?, where he takes absurd queries (“From what height would you need to drop a steak for it to be cooked when it hit the ground?”) and uses them to explain scientific ideas. He doesn’t crack quite as many jokes as in XKCD, but it is very informative. You’ll learn about things like ballistics, DNA, the oceans, the atmosphere, and lightning.


Bill Gates's Review:

A Funny, Brutally Honest Memoir

I suspect that anyone who has experienced depression would get a lot out of reading this book. The mental illness she describes is profoundly isolating: “When you have to spend every social interaction consciously manipulating your face into shapes that are only approximately the right ones, alienating people is inevitable.” It must be empowering for those who have struggled with depression to read this book, see themselves, and know they’re far from alone.

It might be even more valuable for those who have a friend, colleague, or family member who has experienced depression. Hyperbole and a Half gave me a new appreciation for what a depressed person is feeling and not feeling, and what’s helpful and not helpful. Here’s a good example: “People want to help. So they try harder to make you feel hopeful…. You explain it again, hoping they’ll try a less hope-centric approach, but re-explaining your total inability to experience joy inevitably sounds kind of negative, like maybe you WANT to be depressed. So the positivity starts coming out in a spray—a giant, desperate happiness sprinkler pointed directly at your face.”

I get why Brosh has become so popular. While she self-deprecatingly depicts herself in words and art as an odd outsider, we can all relate to her struggles. Rather than laughing at her, you laugh with her. It is no hyperbole to say I love her approach—looking, listening, and describing with the observational skills of a scientist, the creativity of an artist, and the wit of a comedian.


Bill Gates's Review:

I generally read books that I expect to enjoy. But based on reviews I had seen, I was prepared to be more frustrated than fascinated by Robert Gordon’s new book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth. So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered how much I liked it.

Most reviews have focused on the “fall” indicated in the title: the last hundred pages or so, in which Gordon predicts that the future won’t live up to the past in terms of economic growth. I strongly disagree with him on that point, as I discuss below. But I did find his historical analysis, which makes up the bulk of the book, utterly fascinating. (And, at 743 pages, the book has a lot of bulk. Gordon’stwo-part piece in Bloomberg View is a helpful summary for anyone who won’t get through the whole thing.)

Gordon paints a vivid picture of the years between 1870 and 1970, a century of unprecedented growth in the United States. This was the century that brought us the great inventions that fundamentally changed our standard of living—inventions like the electrical grid, indoor plumbing, automobiles, and antibiotics.

Gordon does a phenomenal job illustrating just how different life was in 1870 than it was in 1970, through both an economic analysis and engaging narrative descriptions.


Bill Gates's Review:

Not long after I first met Warren Buffett back in 1991, I asked him to recommend his favorite book about business. He didn’t miss a beat: “It’s Business Adventures, by John Brooks,” he said. “I’ll send you my copy.” I was intrigued: I had never heard of Business Adventures or John Brooks.

Today, more than two decades after Warren lent it to me—and more than four decades after it was first published—Business Adventures remains the best business book I’ve ever read. John Brooks is still my favorite business writer. (And Warren, if you’re reading this, I still have your copy.)

A skeptic might wonder how this out-of-print collection of New Yorker articles from the 1960s could have anything to say about business today. After all, in 1966, when Brooks profiled Xerox, the company’s top-of-the-line copier weighed 650 pounds, cost $27,500, required a full-time operator, and came with a fire extinguisher because of its tendency to overheat. A lot has changed since then.

It’s certainly true that many of the particulars of business have changed. But the fundamentals have not. Brooks’s deeper insights about business are just as relevant today as they were back then. In terms of its longevity, Business Adventures stands alongside Benjamin Graham’s The Intelligent Investor, the 1949 book that Warren says is the best book on investing that he has ever read.


The Rosie Project: A Novel
by Graeme Simsion

Bill Gates's Review:

The Novel I Gave to 50 Friends

If somebody asked me, “what do you think your decades of working in technology have prepared you for?” my first answer definitely wouldn’t be, “writing a best-selling novel that beautifully explores the human condition.” But Australian author Graeme Simsion has taken his extensive experience in the data modeling industry and used it to do just that.

Melinda and I loved his first book, The Rosie Project. It starts when a geneticist who may or may not have Asperger’s Syndrome decides to put together a double-sided, 16-page questionnaire as the obvious first step to finding a wife. Ultimately the book is less about genetics or thinking too logically or the main character’s hilarious journey than it is about getting inside the mind and heart of someone a lot of people see as odd—and discovering that he isn’t really that different from anybody else.

Since then, I must have given The Rosie Project to at least 50 friends. Graeme has been busy too, writing a sequel called The Rosie Effect. As soon as we heard about it, Melinda and I asked him for an advance copy, and we enjoyed it so much that we invited Graeme to come to Seattle to talk to us about it.


Can you be too logical?

Melinda picked up this novel earlier this year, and she loved it so much that she kept stopping to read passages out loud to me. I started it myself at 11 p.m. one Saturday and stayed up with it until 3 the next morning. Anyone who occasionally gets overly logical will identify with the hero, a genetics professor with Asperger’s Syndrome who goes looking for a wife. (Melinda thought I would appreciate the parts where he’s a little too obsessed with optimizing his schedule. She was right.) It’s an extraordinarily clever, funny, and moving book about being comfortable with who you are and what you’re good at. I’m sending copies to several friends and hope to re-read it later this year. This is one of the most profound novels I’ve read in a long time.


The Road to Character
by David Brooks

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The insightful New York Times columnist examines the contrasting values that motivate all of us. He argues that American society does a good job of cultivating the “résumé virtues” (the traits that lead to external success) but not our “eulogy virtues” (the traits that lead to internal peace of mind). Brooks profiles various historical figures who were paragons of character. I thought his portrait of World War II General George Marshall was especially enlightening. Even if the distinction between the two types of virtues is not always crystal clear, The Road to Character gave me a lot to think about. It is a thought-provoking look at what it means to live life well.The insightful New York Times columnist examines the contrasting values that motivate all of us. He argues that American society does a good job of cultivating the “résumé virtues” (the traits that lead to external success) but not our “eulogy virtues” (the traits that lead to internal peace of mind). Brooks profiles various historical figures who were paragons of character. I thought his portrait of World War II General George Marshall was especially enlightening. Even if the distinction between the two types of virtues is not always crystal clear, The Road to Character gave me a lot to think about. It is a thought-provoking look at what it means to live life well.


Bill Gates's Review:

How Malaria Spreads and How We Can Stop It


How did malaria become a disease of the tropics? Climate change and other factors created a home for it.

Here’s the publisher’s description for the book The Making of a Tropical Disease: A Short History of Malaria, by Randall M. Packard:

Malaria sickens hundreds of millions of people—and kills one to three million—each year. Despite massive efforts to eradicate the disease, it remains a major public health problem in poorer tropical regions. But malaria has not always been concentrated in tropical areas. How did other regions control malaria and why does the disease still flourish in some parts of the globe?

From Russia to Bengal to Palm Beach, Randall Packard’s far-ranging narrative traces the natural and social forces that help malaria spread and make it deadly. He finds that war, land development, crumbling health systems, and globalization—coupled with climate change and changes in the distribution and flow of water—create conditions in which malaria's carrier mosquitoes thrive. The combination of these forces, Packard contends, makes the tropical regions today a perfect home for the disease.

Authoritative, fascinating, and eye-opening, this short history of malaria concludes with policy recommendations for improving control strategies and saving lives.



Bill Gates's Review:


Problems With Today's Politics

A Nation of Wusses: How America’s Leaders Lost the Guts to Make Us Great is one of the shorter, fun books I read this summer. It’s by Ed Rendell, who was district attorney, mayor of Philadelphia, and then two-term governor of Pennsylvania. If you’ve heard him speak or seen him on TV, you know he’s a colorful and outspoken observer of political life in the United States. No surprise, then, that this book is colorful too, with lots of great stories. His theme is that leaders shouldn’t just tell people what they want to hear. But because politics has become so intensely partisan, too often our political leaders seem to be afraid to tell us the truth and to actually lead us in making the hard choices we need to face up to, on issues like education reform and the federal deficit. As a mayor and governor, Rendell faced up to some very messed-up budget situations and made some smart trade-offs. I thought his point of view was really refreshing. He makes a good point about how politics has changed in ways that make it harder for leaders to emerge.


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An Architect of Obamacare Reviews Our System

One of the architects of the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) makes the case for why the U.S. health care system needed reform and how Obamacare sets out to fix the problems. Although he was deeply involved in its creation, Ezekiel J. Emanuel  is good about making it clear when he’s educating you about the history of health care and when he’s advocating for his ideas. In Reinventing American Health Care: How the Affordable Care Act Will Improve Our Terribly Complex, Blatantly Unjust, Outrageously Expensive, Grossly Inefficient, Error Prone System, he calls out a few things he disagreed with in Obamacare, like the creation of a separate health-insurance exchange for small businesses. And unlike a lot of experts, he’s willing to make predictions about how health care will change in the coming years. Some day we’ll be able to look back and see whether he was right. The facts and history that Emanuel lays out would be useful to anyone involved in the debate over health care, no matter what their point of view is.


How to Lie with Statistics
by Darrell Huff, Irving Geis

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I picked this one up after seeing it on a Wall Street Journal list of good books for investors. It was first published in 1954, but it doesn’t feel dated (aside from a few anachronistic examples—it has been a long time since bread cost 5 cents a loaf in the United States). In fact, I’d say it’s more relevant than ever. One chapter shows you how visuals can be used to exaggerate trends and give distorted comparisons. It’s a timely reminder, given how often infographics show up in your Facebook and Twitter feeds these days. A great introduction to the use of statistics, and a great refresher for anyone who’s already well versed in it.


Bill Gates's Review:

Is This the Effect of Human Activity?

Climate change is a big problem—one of the biggest we’ll face this century—but it’s not the only environmental concern on the horizon. Humans are putting down massive amounts of pavement, moving species around the planet, over-fishing and acidifying the oceans, changing the chemical composition of rivers, and more. Kolbert, a staff writer at The New Yorker, makes a compelling case that all this activity is leading to the sixth mass extinction in the Earth’s history. Think of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs—only this time the cataclysm is man-made. Unlike a lot of people who write about the environment, Kolbert doesn’t resort to hype. She just lays out the facts and wraps them in memorable anecdotes. It’s a sobering but engaging and informative read.


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How much can we reduce carbon emissions that come from making and using stuff? Quite a bit, according to the University of Cambridge team behind this book. They look closely at the materials that humans use most, with particular emphasis on steel and aluminum, and show how we could cut emissions by up to 50 percent without asking people to make big sacrifices. Although the topic can be dry as a desert, the authors keep it light with lots of colorful illustrations and clever analogies without sacrificing clarity or rigor. I learned a lot from this thoughtful look at a critical topic. (You can download it free on the authors’ site.)


Bill Gates's Review:

Paul Farmer’s Work to Cure Infectious Disease

Bill Foege is one of my heroes. Among his many accomplishments, he was instrumental in ridding the world of smallpox, which is still the only human disease ever eradicated. This book gives you a great view from the front lines of that battle. Bill was a mentor to Melinda and me in the early days of our philanthropy, and he continues to give us great advice today. I also recommend his deeply moving Gates Notes article about fighting river blindness. It’s a fantastic story that gives you real insight into how he thinks about his work.


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The brain behind XKCDexplains various subjects—from how smartphones work to what the U.S. Constitution says—using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language and blueprint-style diagrams. It is a brilliant concept, because if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t really understand it. Munroe, who worked on robotics at NASA, is an ideal person to take it on. The book is filled with helpful explanations and drawings of everything from a dishwasher to a nuclear power plant. And Munroe’s jokes are laugh-out-loud funny. This is a wonderful guide for curious minds.


Bill Gates's Review:

Politics, Baseball, and Poker

Anyone interested in politics may be attracted to Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – but Some Don’t. Silver got a lot of attention in 2012 for predicting—accurately, as it turned out—the results of the U.S. presidential election. This book actually came out before the election, though, and it’s about predictions in many domains besides politics. Silver knows a lot about baseball, and I especially liked his explanation of hold’em poker. A few pages where he talks about how early computers supposedly made everything less efficient are utter nonsense. I wish he had gone into more depth on some things, like why it is that voters are increasingly polarized.


Bill Gates's Review:

Don’t Waste His Time

I enjoyed Eli Broad's succinct memoir, The Art of Being Unreasonable: Lessons in Unconventional Thinking. Broad has had huge success in business, as the leader of KB Home and then SunAmerica. Now retired, he’s become an important philanthropist in areas including education, which is how I’ve gotten to know him. He attributes a lot of his success to his willingness to defy convention. For example, he admits he’s an impatient guy who hates for people to waste his time, so he won’t go to any event for more than three hours. He believes you may have to be “unreasonable” sometimes to accomplish your goals. He’s certainly accomplished a lot.


Bill Gates's Review:

A Practical Guide to Making Life Better

I don’t read a lot of self-help or inspirational books, but even if you never read anything in this genre,Awakening Joy: 10 Steps That Will Put You on the Road to Real Happines is one you should try. It’s about enjoying your life, consciously picking the things that make life more enjoyable and purposefully thinking about them. It shows how to think about spirituality and purpose in your life. The author, James Baraz teaches a very popular course and has an online lecture series on this. Melinda and I actually went to one of his seminars. He’s a very nice guy, and Awakening Joy is very good.


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I have a soft spot for Japan that dates back three decades or so, when I first traveled there for Microsoft. Today, of course, Japan is intensely interesting to anyone who follows global economics. Why were its companies—the juggernauts of the 1980s—eclipsed by competitors in South Korea and China? And can they come back? Those questions are at the heart of this series of dialogues between Ryoichi, an economist who died in 2013, and his son Hiroshi, founder of the Internet company Rakuten. Although I don’t agree with everything in Hiroshi’s program, I think he has a number of good ideas. The Power to Compete is a smart look at the future of a fascinating country.


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Nick is one of those original thinkers who makes you say: More people should know about this guy’s work. He is trying to right a scientific wrong by getting people to fully appreciate the role that energy plays in all living things. He argues that we can only understand how life began, and how living things got so complex, by understanding how energy works. It’s not just theoretical; 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.


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This book first came to my attention a few years ago during an invention session on education with my friend Nathan Myrhvold. It’s been an important influence on the foundation’s education work. Through clever research studies and engaging writing, Dweck illuminates how our beliefs about our capabilities exert tremendous influence on how we learn and which paths we take in life. The value of this book extends way beyond the world of education. It’s just as relevant for businesspeople who want to cultivate talent and for parents who want to raise their kids to thrive on challenge.


Bill Gates's Review:

Both Melinda and I read this one, 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. He also writes about our species today and how artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and other technologies will change us in the future. Although I found things to disagree with—especially Harari’s claim that humans were better off before we started farming—I would recommend Sapiens to anyone who’s interested in the history and future of our species.


Bill Gates's Review:

Former U.S. president Richard Nixon is often portrayed as little more than a crook and a war monger. So it was refreshing to see a more balanced account in Being Nixon, by author and journalist Evan Thomas. I wouldn’t call it a sympathetic portrait—in many ways, Nixon was a deeply unsympathetic person—but it is an empathetic one. Rather than just focusing on Nixon’s presidency, Thomas takes a cradle-to-the-grave approach and gives you sharp insights into the inner workings of a brilliant, flawed, and conflicted man.


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I read one book this year that definitely deserves a spot on this list, but I haven’t had time to give it the full write-up it deserves. The Vital Question, by Nick Lane, is an amazing inquiry into the origins of life. I loved it so much that I immediately bought all of Lane’s other books. And I jumped at the chance to meet Lane and talk to him about his research last September, when both of us were in New York City. I’ll post more about his fascinating work when I get the chance.


Bill Gates's Review:

If you want to read just one book about malaria, The Fever is probably the best choice. Author Sonia Shah doesn’t overwhelm you with data and analytics, but she does cover the whole history of the disease, which—as the title suggests—goes back further than you might think. 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). But it’s a great overview of malaria, its impact, and the solutions to it.


Bill Gates's Review:

Better Angels of Our Nature in Graphs & Numbers

In his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker shows with data and charts how violence is declining


Bill Gates's Review:

Stepan’s history of eradication efforts gives you a good sense of how involved the work can get, how many different kinds of approaches have been tried without success, and how much we’ve learned from our failures. She writes in a fairly academic style that may make it hard for non-experts to get to her valuable arguments, but it’s worth the effort. You come away from it with a clearer sense of how we can use the lessons of the past to guide future efforts to save lives.


Bill Gates's Review:

History, Science, the Past, and the Future

If you like big history as much as I do, read this book. The author, Cynthia Stokes Brown, has also written a lot of the material for our Big History online course.


Frank Stewart's Bridge Club
by Frank Stewart

Bill Gates's Review:

An Entertaining Bridge Game

I learned to play bridge from my parents, but I really started to enjoy it after I started playing with Warren Buffett. I’m lucky that I get to play with bridge players who are dramatically better than I am, and who are nice enough to make comments that will help me do it right next time. And that’s a lot of fun.


Bill Gates's Review:

Changing the Way We Innovate

I could not agree more that energy innovation is crucial to our future—and that we need to change the way we approach that innovation here in the U.S.


Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update
by Donella H. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis L. Meadows

Bill Gates's Review:

Forecasting the Future through Resource Modeling

The 1972 findings of these three MIT scientists was a pretty unsettling look at the risk of “overshoot”—overconsumption of the planet’s available resources. This update offers some encouragement.


Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think
by Peter H. Diamandis, Steven Kotler

Bill Gates's Review:

Innovation Can Help Meet Basic Human Needs

I could relate to a lot in this book. The authors argue that we'll be able to meet and exceed the needs of every person in the world, through technology, innovation, and philanthropy.


Bill Gates's Review:

Becoming Informed about Natural Resources

Paul Collier’s first book, The Bottom Billion, looked at poverty in 50 small nations. Here, he looks at the need to provide resources to developing countries while protecting the environment.



Global Burden of Disease and Risk Factors (Lopez, Global Burden of Diseases and Risk Factors)
by Alan D. Lopez, Colin D. Mathers, Majid Ezzati, Dean T. Jamison, Christopher J. L. Murray

Bill Gates's Review:

Global Burden of Disease and Risk Factors

This book draws from more than 8,500 data sources and 10,000 datasets on disease. I found that it really gives a comprehensive picture of global health through its publication date.


Bill Gates's Review:

Two Parties Battling Over Limited Resources

This book came out in 2012, but I think it continues to be topical, as our political parties in the U.S. debate economic choices.


Bill Gates's Review:

Planning for Natural and Manmade Events

Smil uses his understanding of a phenomenal range of subjects to consider what catastrophes the next 50 years might bring—and how we need to be prepared.




Bill Gates's Review:

Don’t Laugh. He Means the U.S., Too

Lots of countries took advantage of cheap credit, in ways they came to regret. I was interested by the way the author relates it to the U.S. economy.



Bill Gates's Review:

Even Advanced Medicine Can Benefit From a Checklist

I’m fascinated by the work of Dr. Atul Gawande, who is testing the use of a simple checklist to increase the maternal and infant survival rate during childbirth in developing countries.


Priorities in Health
by Dean T. Jamison, Joel G. Breman, Anthony R. Measham, George Alleyne, Mariam Claeson, David B. Evans, Prabhat Jha, Anne Mills, Philip Musgrove

Bill Gates's Review:

A Prescription for Effective Disease Control

As a companion guide to the larger book, Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries, this book gives a an overview of the scope of diseases and the work needed to fight them.


Bill Gates's Review:

The Real Costs of Energy Use

Vaclav Smil considers the twenty-first century’s crucial question: how to reconcile the increasing demand for energy with the economic, environmental, and security costs of using fossil fuels.


Bill Gates's Review:

Staring an Enemy in the Face

This book really is a “biography” of cancer—a disease that everyone dreads. You learn about its history, from early diagnoses to the 20th century progress in treatments.


Bill Gates's Review:

Restoring the Country's Greatness

Tom Brokaw tells stories of Americans who are leading their communities to make changes that offer hope for America’s future.


Bill Gates's Review:

Building a Modern Weapon

My son and I visited this missile silo on a vacation. The book gives a great behind-the-scenes look at the development of a complex weapons system.


Global Health: An Introductory Textbook
by A Lindstrand, S Bergstrom, H Rosling

Bill Gates's Review:

Public Health Around the World

I think this is a great resource for public health students. It clearly shows the relationship between health and social, environmental, and economic factors.


Bill Gates's Review:

A Comprehensive Look at China's Overseas Aid

There’s a lot of information available on China’s impact on the global economy, but this book looks at China’s role in foreign aid, through its history with Africa.


Retiree Health Plans in the Public Sector: Is There a Funding Crisis?
by Robert L. Clark, Melinda Sandler Morrill

Bill Gates's Review:

Health Insurance and Retired U.S. Workers

Today, retirees are more likely to get health coverage from the public than the private sector. This books takes a look at the type of coverage available through state governments.


Bill Gates's Review:

New Technologies Spurned Unprecedented Change

Vaclav Smil writes about an amazing, transformational time in world history, when technology exploded the possibilities for future societies.



Bill Gates's Review:

An Understanding of Our Biosphere

I loved Smil’s Harvesting the Biosphere. This book is a prelude to that one—an overview of the biosphere from its beginnings, and some concerns for its future.


Bill Gates's Review:

Helping U.S. Healthcare Get Better

The U.S. spends a lot of money on health care with inconsistent results. This book looks at the potential of “Obamacare” to improve the system.


Bill Gates's Review:

Citizens Should Read This, Too

The message here is, don’t rely on the news—develop your own ability to assess the science behind reports of biochemical, nuclear, or global warming threats.


Bill Gates's Review:

We Need a Revolution to Turn Back Climate Change

I’ve read several of Thomas Friedman’s books. This one is about the need for the U.S. to lead a green revolution, to help the planet and to build the nation.


The Black Swan
by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Bill Gates's Review:

Knowing What We Don’t Know

Black swan events have huge impact, but can only be recognized after the fact. I was fascinated by the idea that if we accept what we don’t know, we could redefine “possible.”


Finance and the Good Society
by Robert J. Shiller

Bill Gates's Review:

How Finance Can Help Achieve Social Goals

Robert Shiller won a Nobel Prize for economics in 2013. In this book, he talks about financial innovation and why we need to use it for the good of society.


Bill Gates's Review:

How Franklin Roosevelt Helped Us Understand Polio

In early 20th century America, the poor were often blamed for the spread of polio. I found this misunderstanding of the disease distressing. It took a lot to overcome this.


Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries (Disease Control Priorities Project)
by Dean T. Jamison, Joel G. Breman, Anthony R. Measham, George Alleyne, Mariam Claeson, David B. Evans, Prabhat Jha, Anne Mills, Philip Musgrove

Bill Gates's Review:

Update to a Comprehensive Report

I was glad to see this update to a 1993 publication by the World Bank, a part of the Disease Control Priorities Project.


Weather For Dummies
by John D. Cox

Bill Gates's Review:

What’s it Like Outside?

Here in the Pacific Northwest, the weather is always a popular subject. After reading this book, I had a better understanding—and appreciation—of weather systems and trends.


Bill Gates's Review:

An Economist Teaches Prediction

Nouriel Roubini predicted the economic crisis before other economists saw it coming. He shows how his methods can help us make sense of the present and prepare for the future.



Bill Gates's Review:

Does the Brain Have Its Own Form of Machine Language?

How much is the brain like a computer? I was really interested to see what the authors presented, since I’m interested in machine learning.


Bill Gates's Review:

A Groundbreaking Invention, and a Tainted Legacy

I found this book about William Shockley, who's considered to be the founder of Silicon Valley, unsettling. His offensive personal beliefs overshadowed his whole career.


Bill Gates's Review:

Can the Biotech Industry Improve Its Performance?

Biotech is a complex industry—like other science-based industries. This book takes a critical look at the challenges, and what needs to be done to make it work.


Bill Gates's Review:

Building One of the World’s Greatest Structures

I’ve read other David McCullough books, and this topic made it a surefire thing. I finished it right as I got to the Panama Canal on my vacation.


Bill Gates's Review:

Why Some Rose, and Others Fell

Like a lot of people, I was blown away by Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel. I had never read anything that explained so much about human history.



Bill Gates's Review:

Essential Knowledge in a Good Set of Essays

If you're interested in the basics of physics, I recommend this book. It gives a good overview of the core principles.


The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins

Bill Gates's Review:

A Dystopian Future

This is one of the few fiction books I’ve read. It was pretty exciting and also kind of disturbing. If you haven’t already read it—and I bet most you have—I recommend it.


Bill Gates's Review:

A Resource for Clinical Workers

I liked that this book reviews the challenges of diagnosing and treating a broad range of tropical diseases, and also provides a lot of clinical information.


Bill Gates's Review:

How Einstein’s Mind Worked

I really enjoyed this insight into one of the great minds of the 20th century. Isaacson’s biography shows how Einstein’s scientific imagination sprang from his rebellious personality.


The Catcher in the Rye
by J.D. Salinger

Bill Gates's Review:

Out of School, Stuck in Life

I read this when I was 13. It’s my favorite book. It acknowledges that young people are a little confused, but can be smart, and see things that adults don’t.


Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration
by Douglas S. Massey, Jorge Durand, Nolan J. Malone

Bill Gates's Review:

An Overview of Climate Change Science

I found this to be an easy-to-read book, written by a Nobel Prize winner, that explores the issue of climate change from several perspectives.



Bill Gates's Review:

Discoveries that Changed Science

I enjoyed this book about ten famous experiments (like Pavlov’s dog) that had a huge impact on the science of their time.



Bill Gates's Review:

How Global Warming May Impact Human Society

This is a good overview of global warming—the science behind it, and how we might address the problems caused by it.


Bill Gates's Review:

They're All Around Us, and Always Busy

A fun book about chemistry and the composition of many familiar, everyday materials—our food, our clothing, and even the air we breathe.


What Does China Think?
by Mark Leonard

Bill Gates's Review:

China Through the Eyes of Its Thinkers

What do we really know about China? This book challenges readers to get past assumptions and take a real look at the country and its thinkers.



Redefining Health Care: Creating Value-Based Competition on Results
by Michael E. Porter, Elizabeth Olmsted Teisberg

Bill Gates's Review:

The Need to Value Patients More than Profits

This book looks at the problems of the U.S. healthcare system and offers a framework for better results by shifting the focus to helping patients.


Bill Gates's Review:

Great Advice, and Humor, Too

Charlie is the vice president of Berkshire Hathaway (and my friend Warren Buffet's business partner). This is a great and enjoyable insight into his thinking.


A Guide to the Elements
by Albert Stwertka

Bill Gates's Review:

History and Basic Concepts of Chemistry

If you're interested in the basics of physics, I recommend this book. It gives a good overview of the core principles.



Bill Gates's Review:

How Brains Work, and Can Work Better

These “brain rules” explain how the brain works. I tried some of the rules—you can actually use them to improve the way you perform in school or at work.


Bill Gates's Review:

Agents of Change in America

As the co-chair of a foundation, I was very interested to read this history of American foundations, and to think about the impact—and responsibility—foundations have.


Bill Gates's Review:

What Caused Some Great Civilizations to Fail?

I found this to be an interesting follow-up to the excellent Guns, Germs, and Steel. It examines the downfall of some of history's greatest civilizations.


Bill Gates's Review:

What It’s Like to Be an Elite Athlete

I play tennis, and I enjoyed this autobiography of tennis star Pete Sampras, which gives a very personal look at what it’s like to be an elite athlete.


Bill Gates's Review:

This book had a profound effect on the way I think about history and why certain societies advance faster than others.


Bill Gates's Review:

A Rapidly Changing World


I thought this was an interesting look at what’s happened over the past couple of decades as the world economy has become more globalized and competitive.


Bill Gates's Review:

How Better Health Affects Human History

Humans are bigger and taller, and live longer, than they did 300 years ago. This book looks at how this impacts health today and what it means for the future.


Bill Gates's Review:

What Happened to Everyone When the U.S. Economy Crashed

The author of Liar’s Poker tells the story of the people and factors that led to the crash of the U.S. economy.



Bill Gates's Review:

Sharing Top Courses

I’m a big believer in the benefits of online learning, so I was very interested to learn how some leading universities have been making their courses available online.


Bill Gates's Review:

Watching Natural Selection as it Happens

Two scientists visited the Galapagos archipelago to take a modern-day look at a bird population that illustrates Darwin’s theory of evolution


Bill Gates's Review:

Analyzing Financial Fallouts

A history of financial crises, which skewers the idea that “this time is different.” This global history goes all the way back to medieval times.


Bill Gates's Review:

Solving 10 Serious Problems

Whether you have 50 dollars or 50 billion dollars to contribute, this book looks at the world's biggest problems and how spending can impact solutions.


Bill Gates's Review:

Getting Students Interested

As an investor in education, I’d recommend this as an interesting and helpful resource for teachers on the ways students learn and think.


Bill Gates's Review:

Nature Exploits Them, and So Can We

I thought this was a really fascinating look at how we might use molecules in space and in our bodies, if we use biomimetics to simulate the ways nature uses them.


Physics For Dummies
by Steve Holzner

Bill Gates's Review:

A Fun and Informative Look at Physics

Here’s another book you can read to get a good, basic understanding of physics. No prior knowledge needed—I encourage you to give it a try.


On Intelligence
by Jeff Hawkins, Sandra Blakeslee

Bill Gates's Review:

Can We Build a Computer That’s Smarter than Us?

Can we create an artificial intelligence that truly mimics the brain’s function? According to the author, no. I hope he’s right.


Post-Capitalist Society
by Peter F. Drucker

Bill Gates's Review:

Society Transformed by Knowledge

Peter Drucker on the transformation in which knowledge replaces capital, land, and labor as the top commodity, to create the Knowledge Society.


Bill Gates's Review:

The History of America’s Electrical Grid

The electrical grid may not be something you think about on a regular basis, but after reading this book, I guarantee you’ll think about it a lot more.


Bill Gates's Review:

Innovations and Social Change

This book looks at the developments in the 18th century that allowed technology and innovation to create platforms for even more invention.


Bill Gates's Review:

Reassessing the Value of Medical Technology

The beast of the title is medical technology—which brings great cost and ethical dilemmas, along with its great promise.


Bill Gates's Review:

Applying Business Strategy to Giving

I’m mentioned in this book, on a subject I’m personally invested in—how business-modeled philanthropy can change the world.


Bill Gates's Review:

Anomalies Can Lead to Breakthroughs

If you're interested in the basics of physics, I recommend this book. It gives a good overview of the core principles.


Bill Gates's Review:

Methods for Solving Social Problems

Jeffrey Sachs looks at a range of countries and provides a diagnosis for each, mapping a path out of poverty. It’s a very thoughtful book.


Bill Gates's Review:


Inventions that Won WWII

Paul Kennedy, author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, provides a new and unique look at how World War II was won.


Bill Gates's Review:

Nitrogen and Civilization

Enriching the Earth is the history of fertilizer, which used to be a finite resource (poop), until they invented a synthesizing process.


Bill Gates's Review:

Preventing Future Global Economic Crises

I was encouraged by this analysis of how the global financial crisis could have been avoided—and how to prevent crises in the future.


The Tobacco Atlas
by Omar Shafey, Michael Eriksen, Hana Ross, Judith Mackay

Bill Gates's Review:

A Broad Look at a Killer

It’s amazing to me that a substance that is so clearly a public health risk continues to be so widely available. Smoking is pretty much a pandemic.


Bill Gates's Review:

A Life Journey at Sea

The “cats” in this book are boys who work as the crew on ships that sail across the world. I thought it was an unusual coming of age story.


Bill Gates's Review:

Can We Act Quickly Enough?

This examination of some immense environmental issues, and the politics that surround them, also explores how we can make effective changes.


Bill Gates's Review:

A Hard Life, a Generous Soul

A book about Doris Buffett, my friend Warren’s older sister; a great philanthropist and a truly kind-hearted person.



Bill Gates's Review:

The Man Who Mapped the Human Genome

It’s not only the story of a huge scientific achievement. I found it to be a very interesting story of a scientist’s career.


Bill Gates's Review:

A Classic Coming-of-Age Story

One of my favorite books. I’ve read it to my son. It’s really about the bargains we make with the world. How do we grow up?


Showing Up for Life: Thoughts on the Gifts of a Lifetime
by Bill Gates Sr., Mary Ann Mackin, Bill Gates

Bill Gates's Review:

Stories and Lessons from My Dad

This book was written by my dad, so I may be partial, but I definitely recommend it as a how-to book for getting ahead in life.


Bill Gates's Review:

A Shortage of Teachers

We need more qualified teachers in the United States. This book offers some ideas on how to address this serious issue.


Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era
by Amory Lovins, Marvin Odum, John W. Rowe

Bill Gates's Review:

Running a Big Economy With Alternative Energy

This book offers energy solutions for four major industries by 2050—with no fossil fuels or nuclear energy.


Steve Jobs
by Walter Isaacson

Bill Gates's Review:

An In-Depth Look at a Creative Mind

Walter Isaacson is a good writer, and I enjoyed reading this book to learn more about the life of a friend and colleague I admired.


Give Smart: Philanthropy that Gets Results
by Thomas J. Tierney, Joel L. Fleishman

Bill Gates's Review:

Making Your Gifts Count

Everyone wants their giving to count, and I think this is a great resource if you want to be sure you are making good choices when you give.


Bill Gates's Review:

From WW II to the Cold War

The creation of the atomic bomb changed world history and the way we view war and national security.



Why Capitalism?
by Allan H. Meltzer

Bill Gates's Review:

Arguing in Favor of Our Economic System

Has capitalism been a bad choice as an economic system, given the problems in recent years? The author says no.


Bill Gates's Review:

Resisting Vaccines

A really interesting history of the big medical and social challenges of making these life-saving treatments available to the public.



Open: An Autobiography
by Andre Agassi

Bill Gates's Review:

To Stardom, Down, and Back Again

I enjoyed this autobiography and really appreciated Agassi’s candor in sharing the story of his life, which was sometimes troubled.


by Malcomm Gladwell

Bill Gates's Review:

How Do Some Become so Successful?

This is an interesting look at how some people become high-achievers. Disclaimer: I'm mentioned in the book.



Bill Gates's Review:

I found this to be a very detailed and engaging book about the Cuban Missile crisis, during the height of tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.