Australia's Chief Scientist

Chief Scientist selects: summer reading list

Hidden in the wealth of data in the 2016 Trends in Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMSS) is a stunning statistic.

Students with many books in the family home are eight times more likely to achieve the advanced benchmark in science in Year 4, and nine times more likely to achieve it in Year 8, than students with just a few.

Yes, even in our frantic times, books count.

No-one is suggesting, of course, that buying books is the magic bullet for turning around our flagging performance in schools.

The TIMSS researchers use the number of books as a proxy for the educational support a student receives in the home environment – not a recipe for certain success.

But we can say that a love of reading and a passion for science go hand in hand, born of that same human instinct to question, to imagine and to explore.

For me, a good book is a story with substance – a formula for learning and joy.

So let’s fill our lives with books and fire ourselves with potential!

In that spirit, here’s my reading list for 2016.

  1. Robert Harris, The Cicero Trilogy (Imperium, Lustrum, and Dictator). A dose of Ancient Rome puts Australian politics into perspective. Back then, “blood on the floor” was not a metaphor.
  2. Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. It’s been described as “a highly seductive scenario planner for the numerous ways in which we might overreach ourselves” in the pursuit of god-like attributes. But immortality might not be equally distributed. Just as well to be prepared.
  3. Andy Weir, The Martian. A rare instance in modern science fiction in which the hero has no dark side, and the story retains an element of plausibility throughout. A stranded astronaut survives a Robinson Crusoe-like ordeal through engineering and science, and a deep belief in the possible. [In another rare instance, the movie is good too!]
  4. An Australian pick – Greg Egan, Zendegi. A map of the human brain and a virtual world compete and merge, while complexity reigns in narrative and outcomes.
  5. And a recommendation from my wife and Editor-in-Chief of Cosmos Magazine, Dr Elizabeth Finkel: Dava Sobel, The Glass Universe. Elizabeth says she learned to write from reading this author, and is delighted that Dava will guide her through her latest passion – the history of astronomy.