A few weeks ago, Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates published his personal summer reading list on his blog Gates Notes. Of the eight titles, two are by the same author, a Canadian professor emeritus you’ve probably never heard of: Vaclav Smil.
“I’m trying to read everything he writes, but he publishes so quickly that I can’t keep up,” Bill Gates writes of Smil on his blog.
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Smil, who taught in the department of Environment and Geography at the University of Manitoba until 2011, can only be described as an interdisciplinary scholar. He has written about a large number of globally significant issues and trends, though he tends to focus on energy, food production, and the environment. The two Smil books on Gates’s summer agenda are about the fall of manufacturing in the US and the rise of sushi and meat-eating in Japan. He has also published books on the creation of synthetic fertilizers, the diesel engines and jet turbines that make global trade possible, and the limits to growth in China. His book count will hit 34 in December, and he’s published hundreds of academic papers. He is 69 years old.
Smil’s intellectual omnivorousness is precisely what appeals to Gates, an insatiable reader with broad interests. “On any page [Smil] might talk about meat-eating among bonobos or the average human life span during the Roman Empire,” Bill Gates writes in a review of Harvesting the Biosphere, one of Smil’s latest books. “The word “polymath” was invented to describe people like him.”