Books

Neil deGrasse Tyson's Essential Business Reads


Neil deGrasse Tyson's Essential Business Reads

Photograph by David Gamble/TopFoto

One of America’s best-known scientists, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson—the indefatigable astrophysicist, professor, columnist, and erstwhile TV host—has served as director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History since 1996. (In that capacity, he made the decision, in 2006, to demote Pluto from a planet to a dwarf.) In his newly published book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Future (W.W. Norton, 2012), Tyson makes an ardent defense of the U.S.’s manned space program, arguing that NASA’s golden age of the 1960s led to a wave of unexpected innovations that transformed America.

Bloomberg Businessweek asked him to provide his favorite business reads. “I’ve always felt that too many business books talk about business practices,” he says, “when the real insights into making money come from the analysis of human behavior, and from the role reason and mathematics can bring to understanding it.” With that in mind, here are four books he strongly recommends.

From Fantasia Mathematica, edited by Clifton Fadiman, a short story called “John Jones’s Dollar” by Harry Stephen Keeler:

“A clever short story that explores the remarkable effect of compound interest. And how someone named John Jones, who was raised in a household with socialist values, was told to invest his dollar in the local bank. Not a very socialist thing to do, he complies. But then he never touches the dollar. Ever. And neither do multiple generations of descendants. Ultimately, via compound interest over the centuries, the dollar is worth trillions. To support the investment, the bank keeps buying companies and property and goods. Ultimately the bank has bought everything buyable in the world. John Jones’s descendants, who eventually own the bank, establish by decree the socialist state that John Jones’s parents had imagined for the world. Of compound interest, Albert Einstein once called it: ‘The most powerful force in the universe.’”

How to Lie With Statistics, by Darrell Huff, illustrated by Irving Geis:

“Every trick of statistics is exposed. While the book empowers you to lie yourself, what it does above all else is expose the breadth and depth of statistical abuses in everything from government data to corporate reports to newspaper editorials. After learning of how rampant the practice is, you instead feel compelled to correct it all.”

The Relativity of Wrong, by Isaac Asimov:

“A short essay on how society has lost track of the meaning and value of the continuum of answers to questions where teachers would just as soon mark them wrong for not precisely matching the answer they are looking for. The essay is a powerful appeal to multiple ways of knowing that has long been expunged from our school systems, because exams with predetermined answers are easier to write and easier to grade. Leaving the adults that the children become incapable of creative decision-making, as they await someone to offer them choices when asked a question in the workplace.”

Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift (specifically “Part IV: A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms”):

“A classic book. Most film retellings of Gulliver’s Travels focus on his voyage to Lilliput, where he’s a giant, or to Brobdingnag, where he is diminutive. But I call people’s attention to Part IV, in which Gulliver meets a community of intelligent, logical horses. Their debates are short. Their decision-making is efficient. Their governance is rational. Their society is a model of function and performance. Meanwhile, running hairy, smelly, and naked in the woods are the Yahoos—the first appearance of that word. They are savage and irrational creatures. And they look just like humans.”

Mayo is an associate editor for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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