See the Hayden Planetarium space show “Dark Universe” at New York’s American Museum of Natural History and you’ll hear the matchless voice of Neil deGrasse Tyson narrating the story of our cosmos, rendered on the dome-shaped screen around you. (If you haven’t seen the show, catch it before it closes on January 17.) DeGrasse Tyson founded the museum’s Department of Astrophysics more than two decades ago and is the director of the Hayden Planetarium; he’s also the host of the weekly podcast StarTalk and the author of several books. “The nonfiction books I consume are often old and represent my personal exploration of how other people think in time and place—what drives their beliefs, their actions, their motivations,” he says. “This helps foster understanding and insights across cultural and political divides.” Here, deGrasse Tyson, whose new book, Letters from an Astrophysicist, published by W. W. Norton, is out now, shares his most recent reading list.
The Conscience of a Conservative, by Barry Goldwater
Living in N.Y.C., where I was born and raised, and flying frequently to Los Angeles, it’s easy to miss entirely how people think in the rest of the country. The rampant disappointment when Hillary Clinton lost the general election in 2016 was tinged with disbelief that 60 million people could have possibly voted Republican. Barry Goldwater’s slim book, though steeped in Cold War rhetoric, forms an excellent primer for liberal and progressive people to understand the roots of why their presidential candidate does not always win.
Anarchy, State, and Utopia, by Robert Nozick
A long, heavy book, but one of the clearest arguments for libertarianism that has ever been laid to page. I remain philosophically unaligned—helping others is how I was raised—but I am considerably more enlightened for having read it.
Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand
This is the fattest novel I have ever picked up, and I never finished reading it. But I did ultimately watch the film trilogy it inspired. It’s a capitalist manifesto, often cited by conservative God-fearing politicians in defense of America’s economic system. But what many people fail to remember, or perhaps never knew, is that Ayn Rand was an ardent atheist, at a time—the peak of the Cold War—when such views were culturally unpopular and wholly rejected by the conservative right. This paradox intrigues me.
Some Answered Questions, by `Abdu’l-Bahá
This is a transcript of the conversations that a central figure of the Baha’i faith, `Abdu’l-Bahá, conducted with a pilgrim while visiting the Israeli city of ‘Akkā. I know less about the Baha’i faith than I do about other religions. So I figured a Q&A book would be a good place to start. Thus far there’s a persistent attempt to convince the reader that Baha’i is science-friendly. Since the faith was born in 1844, making it contemporaneous with Darwin, it gets to fold evolution and other modern science discoveries into its themes and teachings—something that cannot be expected of much-older religions.
Proceedings of the Third International Congress of Eugenics (1932), edited by H. H. Laughlin and H. F. Perkins
A collection of scientific papers presented at a eugenics conference held in New York City. It captures a disturbing chapter in the history of social sciences where deeply biased philosophies of inquiry worked hard to establish the genetic superiority of white Europeans. This influenced sterilization laws, immigration policies, and people’s attitudes toward others who are different. We’ve come a long way since then, but the taproots remain deep and occasionally sprout whenever the political or social climate endorses it.
The Conscience of a Conservative; Anarchy, State, and Utopia; Atlas Shrugged; and Some Answered Questions are available at your local independent bookseller or on Amazon. Proceedings of the Third International Congress of Eugenics is available on archive.org