Stanford's 2014 Three Books program embraces theme of 'science and scientists'

Persis Drell is the first scientist to choose the summer reading list for incoming freshmen and transfer students.

L.A. Cicero Persis Drell with Three Books for frosh

Physicist Persis Drell chose this year's 'Three Books' with their diversity of styles and approaches to science to appeal to the wide interests of incoming freshmen and transfer students.

As the first scientist to lead the Three Books program, physicist Persis Drell, the incoming dean of Stanford School of Engineering, wanted science to be the main theme. But knowing that she was reaching out to a student body with diverse interests, Drell set out to find books that would reveal connections between science and other parts of society, such as politics, art, literature and entertainment.

"I was very concerned that if the theme was going to be science and scientists, I had to get books that were going to be interesting to people who were not scientists," said Drell.

And Drell certainly delivered – one of the books selected for this year's program even glows in the dark.

This year's selections are:

  • Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines by Richard A. Muller; the nonfiction book shows how the laws of physics apply to political decisions.
  • Radioactive by Lauren Redniss; the graphic art biography depicts the love between Marie Curie, Nobel laureate in physics (and later chemistry), and her husband, Pierre, and the birth of radioactivity. (In the dark, the book's cover art glows green.)
  • My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki; the novel follows a Japanese American TV producer who, in the course of working on a Japanese show promoting American beef, discovers and investigates some dark truths. Its other main character is a Japanese woman for whom the TV show is her last connection with the outside world.

Three Books aims to build common ground

Funded by the Lamsam-Sagan Family Endowed Fund for Undergraduate Education, the Three Books program is now in its 11th year. Robert Urstein, dean of freshmen and director of undergraduate advising and research, said the program is the first opportunity to engage with incoming students.

"We are trying to build intellectual community and a common experience for our students as we welcome them to our community of scholars," said Urstein.

Books are mailed early in the summer to all freshmen and transfer students across the globe as well as to faculty and staff who will serve as pre-major advisers to the incoming students and to residential staff in freshmen dorms.

"Since they are big parts of the community, we encourage our resident fellows and pre-major advisers to share in that experience, too," said Urstein. "It provides just one more avenue to engage with new students and welcome them to the Stanford family."

Building on a component of the program that was added last year, students are encouraged to enroll in an online Three Books course, which started on July 21 this year. Currently, about 200 students are on the site talking with Stanford professors and each other about their summer reading.

"I have checked out some of the blogs," Drell said. "I've liked what I've seen, which is some like one book, some like another – they're discussing it and that looked great."

The first official online discussion was conducted via live text chat on July 25, with Drell talking to the students about their initial reactions to the three books. There are at least two more confirmed online meetups – the dates and topics will be announced later in the summer.

The culmination of the Three Books program takes place on Sept. 18 at 7 p.m. during New Student Orientation, when authors Ozeki, Redniss and Muller will participate in a panel discussion moderated by Drell. The event held in Memorial Auditorium is exclusively for freshmen and transfer students, but a live simulcast is open to the public in nearby Pigott Theater.

Having attended last year's panel, Drell said the authors' personal stories were fascinating, so she will leave room for dialogue about their experiences as well as the books' themes. Midway through the session, the floor will be opened to student questions.

"I think it's Day Three of freshman orientation – they've had no sleep, they're hypercharged with adrenaline and everything," Drell laughed. "We want to keep the theme simple and direct – I don't think we'll get into a big debate about climate change, for example."

After the panel, students will be able to go deeper into the books in discussions organized by the residential staff at their respective dorms.

Science literacy is a modern necessity

Even though students' academic interests and future careers will vary, Drell hopes students recognize that science literacy is an essential part of living in today's society.

"Almost all aspects of our daily lives, from the way we get information and communicate to the food that we eat, are touched by modern science," Drell wrote in the online course introduction. "And no matter what life path you choose, being aware of how science and scientists interact with society will be important to you."

But she wanted the books to have diversity of styles and of approaches to science.

Early in the decision-making process, Drell selected the first two books – Physics for Future Presidents and Radioactive – but she started looking for a novel after a feedback session organized by the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education. About 20 Stanford undergraduates attended, reviewed her choices and then told her that at least one fiction book would be a good addition.

"I spent two months searching for the third book, and it was really, really hard. I've got a stack of books several feet high that I was skimming through," said Drell.

Then, Paula Moya, associate professor of English, suggested My Year of Meats. "I sat down one Saturday morning and four hours later, I'm still in my bathrobe, the coffee cup's gotten cold, and I'm laughing out loud," Drell said. "I'm so grateful to her."

Overall, Drell wants students to find at least one book really engaging.

"Part of being at college in an intellectual environment is that people are introduced to new ideas and then interact with other people in this world of ideas," said Drell. "In the process, they learn to ask more questions – that is life at a university."

Shara Tonn is an intern with the Stanford News Service.