The three books for the 2014 Three Books reading program were recently announced: “Radioactive” by Lauren Redniss, “My Year of Meats” by Ruth Ozeki and “Physics for Future Presidents” by Richard A. Muller.
Themed around “science and scientists,” the books were selected by Physics Professor Persis Drell, who was also SLAC National Accelerator’s director from 2007 to October 2012. The books encompass a range of writing styles and topics, from an artistic rendition of Marie Curie’s love story to a self-help book explaining current issues related to science to a novel expose of the meat industry.
“We live in a society dominated by technology where scientific discoveries are finding their way with remarkable speed into our culture,” Drell wrote in a letter addressed to the Class of 2018 to be sent to the students over the summer. “[In] almost all aspects of our daily lives … no matter what life path you choose, being aware of how science and scientists interact with society will be important to you.”
Interestingly, Drell is also the first scientist since the program’s inauguration to be offered the opportunity to choose the three books for the program.
“A considerable portion of our students are interested in the sciences and it’s about time,” said Robert Urstein, dean of freshmen. “And I think it’s great for students to see that we might be focusing our attention on what we do. But there are other parts of our lives that are equally meaningful and rich, and part of that includes story and narrative, and you can find that in literature and science and philosophy.”
According to Drell, she was contacted by Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education Harry Elam in late July to select the books, and she noted that it was a tremendous responsibility as well as an honor.
“In October, November, I was struggling with what would be the right three books, what books students would be attracted to and tempted to read,” Drell said. “Even if they aren’t going to read it cover to cover, at least they would be interested in reading one or two books cover to cover and grazing the third.”
Drell knew from the beginning that she wanted science to be the theme but had difficulty gauging what would be both fun and attractive for a diverse group of students. In order to better understand how incoming students would react to her choices, Drell called for student feedback in mid-November by asking Twain residents about their experiences with the three books for their year.
“What stuck out in their comments and considerations was that they liked ‘Physics for Future Presidents,’” Drell said. “And when I presented ‘Radioactive,’ they wanted a novel, and through the comments it looked like a coming of age book was important for the students … a novel that described someone maybe close enough to their age or where they are in their lives and dealing with some of the issues that they’re dealing with.”
Drell hopes that students from all backgrounds and fields of interest will find significance in the various types of science communication these books provide.
“For the students who don’t come in with a particular interest in science, I would hope they would take away a sense of how science and technology are important in their lives and part of being educated is being engaged with important issues,” she said. “And for the scientists, [I hope] they would take away a strong sense of the importance of being responsible about your science and communicating about your science, both the tremendous it brings to society but also the associated risks it brings to society.”
Contact Catherine Zaw at czaw13 ‘at’ stanford ‘dot’ edu.