In honor of Pi Day on March 14, here is a list of must-read books that explore the nature of genius. From engrossing biographies of mathematicians and scientists to historical fiction that reimagines the lives and loves of the world’s most powerful minds, these books promise something for everyone — and perhaps you’ll even learn a thing or two. Publishers’ descriptions are provided.
Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
On the windswept, fossil-strewn beaches of the English coast, poor and uneducated Mary Anning learns that she has a unique gift: “the eye” to spot fossils no one else can see. When she uncovers an unusual fossilized skeleton in the cliffs near her home, she sets the religious community on edge, the townspeople to gossip, and the scientific world alight. After enduring bitter cold, thunderstorms, and landslips, her challenges only grow when she falls in love with an impossible man.
Mary soon finds an unlikely champion in prickly Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-class spinster who shares her passion for scouring the beaches. Their relationship strikes a delicate balance between fierce loyalty, mutual appreciation, and barely suppressed envy, but ultimately turns out to be their greatest asset.
Remarkable Creatures is a stunning historical novel that follows the story of two extraordinary 19th century fossil hunters who changed the scientific world forever.
The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict
In the tradition of The Paris Wife and Mrs. Poe, The Other Einstein offers us a window into a brilliant, fascinating woman whose light was lost in Einstein’s enormous shadow. It is the story of Einstein’s wife, a brilliant physicist in her own right, whose contribution to the special theory of relativity is hotly debated and may have been inspired by her own profound and very personal insight.
Mitza Maric has always been a little different from other girls. Most 20-year-olds are wives by now, not studying physics at an elite Zurich university with only male students trying to outdo her clever calculations. But Mitza is smart enough to know that, for her, math is an easier path than marriage. And then fellow student Albert Einstein takes an interest in her, and the world turns sideways. Theirs becomes a partnership of the mind and of the heart, but there might not be room for more than one genius in a marriage.
Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann
Measuring the World marks the debut of a glorious new talent on the international scene. Young Austrian writer Daniel Kehlmann’s brilliant comic novel revolves around the meeting of two colossal geniuses of the Enlightenment.
Late in the 18th century, two young Germans set out to measure the world. One of them, the aristocratic naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, negotiates jungles, voyages down the Orinoco River, tastes poisons, climbs the highest mountain known to man, counts head lice, and explores and measures every cave and hill he comes across. The other, the reclusive and barely socialized mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, can prove that space is curved without leaving his home. Terrifyingly famous and wildly eccentric, these two polar opposites finally meet in Berlin in 1828, and are immediately embroiled in the turmoil of the post-Napolean world.
The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore
New York, 1888. Gas lamps still flicker in the city streets, but the miracle of electric light is in its infancy. The person who controls the means to turn night into day will make history — and a vast fortune. A young untested lawyer named Paul Cravath, fresh out of Columbia Law School, takes a case that seems impossible to win. Paul’s client, George Westinghouse, has been sued by Thomas Edison over a billion-dollar question: Who invented the light bulb and holds the right to power the country?
The case affords Paul entry to the heady world of high society — the glittering parties in Gramercy Park mansions, and the more insidious dealings done behind closed doors. The task facing him is beyond daunting. Edison is a wily, dangerous opponent with vast resources at his disposal — private spies, newspapers in his pocket, and the backing of J. P. Morgan himself. Yet this unknown lawyer shares with his famous adversary a compulsion to win at all costs. How will he do it?
In obsessive pursuit of victory, Paul crosses paths with Nikola Tesla, an eccentric, brilliant inventor who may hold the key to defeating Edison, and with Agnes Huntington, a beautiful opera singer who proves to be a flawless performer on stage and off. As Paul takes greater and greater risks, he’ll find that everyone in his path is playing their own game, and no one is quite who they seem.
The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua
Meet Victorian London’s most dynamic duo: Charles Babbage, the unrealized inventor of the computer, and his accomplice, Ada, Countess of Lovelace, the peculiar protoprogrammer and daughter of Lord Byron. When Lovelace translated a description of Babbage’s plans for an enormous mechanical calculating machine in 1842, she added annotations three times longer than the original work. Her footnotes contained the first appearance of the general computing theory, a hundred years before an actual computer was built. Sadly, Lovelace died of cancer a decade after publishing the paper, and Babbage never built any of his machines.
But do not despair! The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage presents a rollicking alternate reality in which Lovelace and Babbage do build the Difference Engine and then use it to build runaway economic models, battle the scourge of spelling errors, explore the wilder realms of mathematics, and, of course, fight crime — for the sake of both London and science. Complete with extensive footnotes that rival those penned by Lovelace herself, historical curiosities, and never-before-seen diagrams of Babbage’s mechanical, steam-powered computer, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage is wonderfully whimsical, utterly unusual, and, above all, entirely irresistible.
Dreaming for Freud by Sheila Kohler
Acclaimed for her spare prose and exceptional psychological insights in her novels Becoming Jane Eyre and Love Child, Sheila Kohler’s latest is inspired by Sigmund Freud’s Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. Dreaming for Freud paints a provocative and sensual portrait of one of history’s most famous patients.
In the fall of 1900, Dora’s father forces her to begin treatment with the doctor. Visiting him daily, the 17-year-old girl lies on his ottoman and tells him frankly about her strange life, and above all about her father’s desires as far as she is concerned. But Dora abruptly ends her treatment after only 11 weeks, just as Freud was convinced he was on the cusp of a major discovery. In Dreaming for Freud, Kohler explores what might have happened between the man who changed the face of psychotherapy and the beautiful young woman who gave him her dreams.
Love and Gravity by Samantha Sotto
Andrea Louviere is seven years old the first time he appears. While she’s alone in her bedroom, practicing her beloved cello, the light shivers and a crack forms in the wall. Through the crack, she sees a candle, a window, a desk — and a boy. In the eerie silence, the boy clearly sees Andrea too. Then, as quickly as it opened, the crack closes and he vanishes.
Over the years, summoning the boy becomes an obsession for Andrea. On her seventeenth birthday, she receives a 300-year-old love letter from Isaac Newton. Andrea knows that Isaac will change the world with his groundbreaking discoveries; the letter tells Andrea that she will change him.
As Isaac’s letters intensify in passion and intimacy, Andrea grows determined to follow his clues to their shared destiny — despite a burgeoning romance in the present. Only when she discovers the way into Isaac’s time does Andrea realize that she faces a heartbreaking decision between what was… and what might be.
The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt
It is 1943, and the renowned inventor Nikola Tesla occupies a forbidden room on the 33rd floor of the Hotel New Yorker, stealing electricity. Louisa, a young maid at the hotel determined to befriend him, wins his attention through a shared love of pigeons; with her we hear his tragic and tremendous life story unfold. Meanwhile, Louisa discovers that her father — and her handsome, enigmatic love interest, Arthur Vaughan — are on an unlikely mission to travel back in time and find his beloved late wife. A masterful hybrid of history, biography, and science fiction, The Invention of Everything Else is an absorbing story about love and death and a wonderfully imagined homage to one of history’s most visionary scientists.
Behave by Andromeda Romano-Lax
“The mother begins to destroy the child the moment it’s born,” wrote the founder of behaviorist psychology, John B. Watson, whose 1928 parenting guide was revered as the child-rearing bible. For their dangerous and “mawkish” impulses to kiss and hug their child, “most mothers should be indicted for psychological murder.”
Behave is the story of Rosalie Rayner, Watson’s ambitious young wife and the mother of two of his children.
In 1920, when she graduated from Vassar College, Rayner was ready to make her mark on the world. Intelligent, beautiful, and unflappable, she won a coveted research position at Johns Hopkins assisting the charismatic celebrity psychologist John B. Watson. Together, Watson and Rayner conducted controversial experiments on hundreds of babies to prove behaviorist principles. They also embarked on a scandalous affair that cost them both their jobs — and recast the sparkling young Rosalie Rayner, scientist and thinker, as Mrs. John Watson, wife and conflicted, maligned mother, just another “woman behind a great man.”
With Behave, Andromeda Romano-Lax offers a provocative fictional biography of Rosalie Rayner Watson, a woman whose work influenced generations of Americans, and whose legacy has been lost in the shadow of her husband’s. In turns moving and horrifying, Behave is a richly nuanced and disturbing novel about science, progress, love, marriage, motherhood, and what all those things cost a passionate, promising young woman.
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
The phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space. Now a major motion picture starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner.
Before John Glenn orbited the earth, or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as human computers used pencils, slide rules, and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.
Among these problem-solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South’s segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America’s aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly, these overlooked math whizzes had a shot at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam’s call, moving to Hampton, Virginia, and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.
Even as Virginia’s Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, the women of Langley’s all-black West Computing group helped America achieve one of the things it desired most: a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and complete domination of the heavens.
Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, four African American women who participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades during which they faced challenges, forged alliances, and used their intellect to change their own lives, and their country’s future.
Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt
In the 1940s and 50s, when the newly minted Jet Propulsion Laboratory needed quick-thinking mathematicians to calculate velocities and plot trajectories, they didn’t turn to male graduates. Rather, they recruited an elite group of young women who, with only pencil, paper, and mathematical prowess, transformed rocket design, helped bring about the first American satellites, and made the exploration of the solar system possible.
For the first time, Rise of the Rocket Girls tells the stories of these women — known as “human computers” — who broke the boundaries of both gender and science. Based on extensive research and interviews with all the living members of the team, Rise of the Rocket Girls offers a unique perspective on the role of women in science: both where we’ve been, and the far reaches of space to which we’re heading.
The Queen of Katwe by Tim Crothers
One day in 2005 while searching for food, nine-year-old Ugandan Phiona Mutesi followed her brother to a dusty veranda where she met Robert Katende.
Katende, a war refugee turned missionary, had an improbable dream: to empower kids in the Katwe slum through chess — a game so foreign there is no word for it in their native language. Laying a chessboard in the dirt, Robert began to teach. At first children came for a free bowl of porridge, but many grew to love the game that — like their daily lives — requires persevering against great obstacles. Of these kids, one girl stood out as an immense talent: Phiona.
By the age of 11 Phiona was her country’s junior champion, and at 15, the national champion. Now a Woman Candidate Master — the first female titled player in her country’s history — Phiona dreams of becoming a Grandmaster, the most elite level in chess. But to reach that goal, she must grapple with everyday life in one of the world’s most unstable countries. The Queen of Katwe is a remarkable and inspirational book that shows how “Phiona’s story transcends the limitations of the chessboard” (Robert Hess, US Grandmaster).
Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel
Inspired by a long fascination with Galileo, and by the remarkable surviving letters of Galileo’s daughter, a cloistered nun, Dava Sobel has written a biography unlike any other of the man Albert Einstein called “the father of modern physics — indeed of modern science altogether.” Galileo’s Daughter also presents a stunning portrait of a person hitherto lost to history, described by her father as “a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to me.”
Galileo’s Daughter dramatically recolors the personality and accomplishment of a mythic figure whose seventeenth-century clash with Catholic doctrine continues to define the schism between science and religion. Moving between Galileo’s grand public life and Maria Celeste’s sequestered world, Sobel illuminates the Florence of the Medicis and the papal court in Rome during the pivotal era when humanity’s perception of its place in the cosmos was about to be overturned. In that same time, while the bubonic plague wreaked its terrible devastation and the Thirty Years’ War tipped fortunes across Europe, one man sought to reconcile the Heaven he revered as a good Catholic with the heavens he revealed through his telescope.
With all the human drama and scientific adventure that distinguished Dava Sobel’s previous book Longitude, Galileo’s Daughter is an unforgettable story.
Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges
It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the British mathematician Alan Turing (1912–1954) saved the Allies from the Nazis, invented the computer and artificial intelligence, and anticipated gay liberation by decades — all before his suicide at age 41. This acclaimed biography of the founder of computer science, with a new preface by the author that addresses Turing’s royal pardon in 2013, is the definitive account of an extraordinary mind and life.
Capturing both the inner and outer drama of Turing’s life, Andrew Hodges tells how Turing’s revolutionary idea of 1936 — the concept of a universal machine — laid the foundation for the modern computer and how Turing brought the idea to practical realization in 1945 with his electronic design. The book also tells how this work was directly related to Turing’s leading role in breaking the German Enigma ciphers during World War II, a scientific triumph that was critical to Allied victory in the Atlantic. At the same time, this is the tragic account of a man who, despite his wartime service, was eventually arrested, stripped of his security clearance, and forced to undergo a humiliating treatment program — all for trying to live honestly in a society that defined homosexuality as a crime.
The inspiration for a major motion picture starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, Alan Turing: The Enigma is a gripping story of mathematics, computers, cryptography, and homosexual persecution.
A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar
In this powerful and dramatic biography Sylvia Nasar vividly recreates the life of a mathematical genius whose career was cut short by schizophrenia and who, after three decades of devastating mental illness, miraculously recovered and was honored with a Nobel Prize.
“How could you, a mathematician, believe that extraterrestrials were sending you messages?” the visitor from Harvard asked the West Virginian with the movie-star looks and Olympian manner. “Because the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way my mathematical ideas did,” came the answer. “So I took them seriously.”
Thus begins the true story of John Nash, the mathematical genius who was a legend by age 30 when he slipped into madness, and who — thanks to the selflessness of a beautiful woman and the loyalty of the mathematics community — emerged after decades of ghostlike existence to win a Nobel Prize for triggering the game theory revolution. The inspiration for an Academy Award–winning movie, Sylvia Nasar’s now-classic biography is a drama about the mystery of the human mind, triumph over adversity, and the healing power of love.
Rosalind Franklin by Brenda Maddox
In 1962, Maurice Wilkins, Francis Crick, and James Watson received the Nobel Prize, but it was Rosalind Franklin’s data and photographs of DNA that led to their discovery. Brenda Maddox tells a powerful story of a remarkably single-minded, forthright, and tempestuous young woman who, at the age of 15, decided she was going to be a scientist, but who was airbrushed out of the greatest scientific discovery of the twentieth century.
American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin
J. Robert Oppenheimer is one of the iconic figures of the 20th century, a brilliant physicist who led the effort to build the atomic bomb for his country in a time of war, and who later found himself confronting the moral consequences of scientific progress. In this magisterial, acclaimed biography 25 years in the making, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin capture Oppenheimer’s life and times, from his early career to his central role in the Cold War. This is biography and history at its finest, riveting and deeply informative.
Finding Atlantis by David King
What do Zeus, Apollo, and the gods of Mount Olympus have in common with Odin, Thor, and the gods of Valhalla? What do these, in turn, have to do with the shades of Hades, the pharaohs of Egypt, and the glories of fabled Atlantis? In 1679, Olof Rudbeck stunned the world with the answer: They could all be traced to an ancient lost civilization that once thrived in the far north of Rudbeck’s native Sweden. He would spend the last 30 years of his life hunting for the evidence that would prove this extraordinary theory.
Chasing down clues to that lost golden age, Rudbeck combined the reasoning of Sherlock Holmes with the daring of Indiana Jones. He excavated what he thought was the acropolis of Atlantis, retraced the journeys of classical heroes, opened countless burial mounds, and consulted rich collections of manuscripts and artifacts. He eventually published his findings in a 2,500-page tome titled Atlantica, a remarkable work replete with heroic quests, exotic lands, and fabulous creatures.
Three hundred years later, the story of Rudbeck’s adventures appears in English for the first time. It is a thrilling narrative of discovery as well as a cautionary tale about the dangerous dance of genius and madness.
The Innovators by Walter Isaacson
Following his blockbuster biography of Steve Jobs, The Innovators is Walter Isaacson’s revealing story of the people who created the computer and the Internet. It is destined to be the standard history of the digital revolution and an indispensable guide to how innovation really happens.
What were the talents that allowed certain inventors and entrepreneurs to turn their visionary ideas into disruptive realities? What led to their creative leaps? Why did some succeed and others fail?
In his masterly saga, Isaacson begins with Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, who pioneered computer programming in the 1840s. He explores the fascinating personalities that created our current digital revolution, such as Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, John von Neumann, J.C.R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart, Robert Noyce, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Tim Berners-Lee, and Larry Page.
This is the story of how their minds worked and what made them so inventive. It’s also a narrative of how their ability to collaborate and master the art of teamwork made them even more creative. For an era that seeks to foster innovation, creativity, and teamwork, The Innovators shows how they happen.
Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin
Temple Grandin, Ph.D., is a gifted animal scientist who has designed one third of all the livestock-handling facilities in the United States. She also lectures widely on autism — because Temple Grandin is autistic, a woman who thinks, feels, and experiences the world in ways that are incomprehensible to the rest of us.
In this unprecedented book, Grandin delivers a report from the country of autism. Writing from the dual perspectives of a scientist and an autistic person, she tells us how that country is experienced by its inhabitants and how she managed to breach its boundaries to function in the outside world. What emerges in Thinking in Pictures is the document of an extraordinary human being, one who, in gracefully and lucidly bridging the gulf between her condition and our own, sheds light on the riddle of our common identity.
My Brief History by Stephen Hawking
My Brief History recounts Stephen Hawking’s improbable journey, from his postwar London boyhood to his years of international acclaim and celebrity. Lavishly illustrated with rarely seen photographs, this concise, witty, and candid account introduces readers to a Hawking rarely glimpsed in previous books: the inquisitive schoolboy whose classmates nicknamed him Einstein; the jokester who once placed a bet with a colleague over the existence of a particular black hole; and the young husband and father struggling to gain a foothold in the world of physics and cosmology.
Writing with characteristic humility and humor, Hawking opens up about the challenges that confronted him following his diagnosis of ALS at age 21. Tracing his development as a thinker, he explains how the prospect of an early death urged him onward through numerous intellectual breakthroughs, and talks about the genesis of his masterpiece A Brief History of Time — one of the iconic books of the twentieth century.
Clear-eyed, intimate, and wise, My Brief History opens a window for the rest of us into Hawking’s personal cosmos.
The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel
In 1913, a young unschooled Indian clerk wrote a letter to G H Hardy, begging the preeminent English mathematician’s opinion on several ideas he had about numbers. Realizing the letter was the work of a genius, Hardy arranged for Srinivasa Ramanujan to come to England. Thus began one of the most improbable and productive collaborations ever chronicled. With a passion for rich and evocative detail, Robert Kanigel takes us from the temples and slums of Madras to the courts and chapels of Cambridge University, where the devout Hindu Ramanujan, “the Prince of Intuition,” tested his brilliant theories alongside the sophisticated and eccentric Hardy, “the Apostle of Proof.” In time, Ramanujan’s creative intensity took its toll: he died at the age of 32 and left behind a magical and inspired legacy that is still being plumbed for its secrets today.
Marie Curie and Her Daughters by Shelley Emling
Published to widespread acclaim, in Marie Curie and Her Daughters, science writer Shelley Emling shows that far from a shy introvert toiling away in her laboratory, the famed scientist and two-time Nobel prize winner was nothing short of an iconoclast. Emling draws on personal letters released by Curie’s only granddaughter to show how Marie influenced her daughters yet let them blaze their own paths: Irene followed her mother’s footsteps into science and was instrumental in the discovery of nuclear fission; Eve traveled the world as a foreign correspondent and then moved on to humanitarian missions. Emling also shows how Curie, following World War I, turned to America for help.
Few people know about Curie’s close friendship with American journalist Missy Meloney, who arranged speaking tours across the country for Marie, Eve, and Irene. Months on the road, charming audiences both large and small, endeared the Curies to American women and established a lifelong relationship with the United States that formed one of the strongest connections of Marie’s life. Factually rich, personal, and original, this is an engrossing story about the most famous woman in science that rips the cover off the myth and reveals the real person, friend, and mother behind it.
Which of these book have you read? Let us know in the comments!
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