Required Reading in Science

Over at Inside Higher Ed they have a news report on complaints about the content of required reading for students entering college. This comes from the National Association of Scholars, a group dedicated to complaining that multiculturalism is corrupting our precious bodily fluids pushing aside the shared heritage of Western civilization, so most of it is pretty predictable. I was surprised by one thing in their list of commonly assigned books this year, though:

What are the freshmen reading? Based on the report's analysis of 290 programs (excluding books that are required parts of courses), the top books this year are This I Believe (an essay collection assigned at 11 colleges), followed by Enrique's Journey (the story of a Honduran boy's struggle to reach his mother in the United States, assigned at 10 colleges) and two books assigned at 9 colleges each, Three Cups of Tea (about building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan) and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (about a poor woman who worked on a tobacco farm whose cells were used, without her knowledge, for research).

The presence of Rebecca Skloot's book on this list is a pleasant surprise. I usually tune out all discussion of these lists (including Union's required reading, which was mentioned in a recent meeting, and immediately forgotten) because they never seem to involve science in any way, and that gets me off on a rant. If the purpose of these is to begin introducing students to the larger intellectual universe as they enter college, it seems a travesty to neglect one of the most important and influential areas of human endeavor. And yet, suggestions that they might include some science content-- I'm not talking The Feynman Lectures on Physics, here, or even How to Teach Physics to Your Dog (though it would be an excellent choice if anybody is interested...), but some of the many excellent books that involve both history and science, like David Lindley's Uncertainty, for example-- tend to fall on deaf ears, and we end up with yet another short-ish novel about someone's difficult upbringing.

So, as I said, I'm pleasantly surprised to see The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks making it onto lists of first-year reading assignments. I haven't read it myself, but it's gotten very good buzz in science blogdom, and will hopefully introduce some students to the idea that science is not just scary nerd stuff, but an integral part of human culture.

Which, of course, brings up an obvious question:

What popular science books ought to be considered as possible required reading for all students entering college?

That is, if you were given the absolute and autocratic power to pick the book that all first-year students on your campus were going to be forced to read and discuss before arriving, what science-related book would you choose?

I'd probably go for Uncertainty, as mentioned above, because it covers the historical development of quantum physics, one of the towering intellectual achievements of modern civilization, but also includes lots of personal stories and historical anecdotes for those who aren't into the science. There's a lot of good material about how science is really done, and some ethical questions are brought up in the process that could be good fodder for discussion (the distribution of Nobel Prizes, for example) for people who don't want to have to think about actual physics.

That's a quick guess at an appropriate sort of book, though. I'm sure I'm forgetting some good possibilities, so suggest them in the comments.

More like this

How about "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson?
The physics is pretty good, and I learned an awful lot of basic biology from it. Very interesting and very amusing.

Also "Irrationality" by Stuart Sutherland. A tour of irrational behaviour that we have all succumbed to at one stage or another.

Also, "Bad Science" by Ben Goldacre, which gives an entertaining take on the advances made by the scientific method in medicine, and what this means for complementary therapies. It uses examples from the UK which will be unfamiliar to others, but the points will be clear to all

By The lane ranger (not verified) on 04 Jun 2010 #permalink

I loved Woman: An intimate Geography, by Natalie Angier. (It probably isn't reasonable to put it on a required reading list for all students, though.)

I haven't read "How to Teach Physics to Your Dog" yet, sorry, but another on physics that pops to mind as suggested required reading is "Physics for Future Presidents" by Richard Muller, especially as the lecture series for the class by the same title is also freely available and very good.

By Gregory Marton (not verified) on 04 Jun 2010 #permalink

I second Bad Science. Also, The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.

I loved 'Chaos' by James Gleick, because it read like a mystery, and it showed how incremental the process is of realizing something new and interesting is going on . . . and also it showed the tensions between the excitement of discoveries pushing against established ideas about the way things work. Were they onto something, or just kidding themselves? I think that question is at the core of scientific discovery.

Best of all, it had really pretty pictures.

I don't know if they still do it, but Franklin & Marshall College used to do a multi-day "Freshman Seminar"--incoming students saw a staged reading that functioned across the curriculum (usually the subject matter was science-based in some way, but also hit social/cultural aspects as well--history, arts, law,and/or literature). Examples of past readings include adaptations of "Frankenstein," and Tom Stoppard's wonderful play "Arcadia." The presentations are used to springboard discussions on all sorts of academic concerns, very effectively.

If you aren't familiar with Stoppard's "Arcadia," I highly recommend it. It provides a wonderful entrance to mathematics, biology, landscape architecture, the problems posed for historians in trying to interpret the past from the past's leavings, literary criticism, botany, academic rivalry... Stoppard is, quite simply, a brillient playwrite.

Here's the real problem that the National Association of Scholars has with those selections. Quoting from the Inside Higher Ed article:

The report cites several issues with the selections. "We found the preponderance of reading assignments promotes liberal social causes and liberal sensibilities. Of the 180 books, 126 (70 percent) either explicitly promote a liberal political agenda or advance a liberal interpretation of events. By contrast, the study identifies only three books (less than 2 percent) that promote a conservative sensibility and none that promote conservative political causes."

I hope I'm not hijacking the threat into a political row here, but I think this had to be pointed out.

By Chris Winter (not verified) on 04 Jun 2010 #permalink

I'd highly recommend some history of science books that read like adventures: The Measure of All Things and Longitude.

"The Measure of All Things" is about what the metric system has to do with the French Revolution, and is full of famous scientists (I know Cassini is in it, and Lavoisier, and I think Fourier, Carnot and Laguerre get cameos too... Even Friedrich Gauss and Thomas Jefferson play peripheral roles, IIRC) living in very exciting times. And the actual project around which the story centers -- a mission to measure the circumference of the Earth so that the meter could be defined in terms of an arc-length on its surface -- is so madly ambitious that you can't help loving the hapless and very human heroes, who think they can pass with impunity through countries their own is at war with, because they're doing science, dammit! And you almost can't help learning some basic science while reading it.

It's been longer since I read "Longitude" but I remember it similarly, as a story with likable characters trying to solve a very hard (and in this case much more practical) problem, with the world and the time similarly vividly detailed. Again the scientists are the heroes and the author enthusiastically explores the actual science they are doing.

Oh, and I love the "Chaos" and "Arcadia" suggestions. I might also pick some selections from Douglas Hofstadter books (not fair to inflict a whole doorstop on the kids) and from this personal favorite

My undergrad school had a "science and culture" graduation requirement, which I fulfilled with a class on artificial intelligence, while other friends took environmental studies or "history of nuclear weapons" classes...

@ 7 Since, the "common reading" as it is called at my alma mater is designed to focus on issues of multi-culturalism and cross cultural communication, it is almost by definition going to promote what the National Association of Scholars perceives as a liberal political agenda.

It's also probably generally not going to be a science book, although "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" would probably quailify and one year they read "The Spirit Catches you and You Fall Down" which is partly about cross-cultural issues in medicine.

By katydid13 (not verified) on 04 Jun 2010 #permalink

Lane ranger covered most of the ones I'd recommend.

Other options:
"The Shape of Space" (Jeffrey Weeks) was phenomenal, though might be a bit too advanced. But I really, really liked it, and had someone given me a copy of that when entering college I might have ended up in math instead of physics.
And while we're at it, "Flatland".
I've heard some good things about "The Drunkard's Walk" though I haven't read it.
And finally, maybe some of Gamow's Mr. Tompkins.

Two others, though they're more of a project to get through
"The Making of the Atomic Bomb"
"And the Band Played On"

Robert Crease's The Great Equations is a great conceptual-level book, i.e., physics for poets level except giving the reader some intellectual credit for being able to follow a decent explanation of deep issues. It's well writen, you can read a chapter a day,and there's no math beyond the Pythagorean theorem and E=mc^2. Trained physicists can see where the author's understanding of physics is incomplete, but it doesn't matter -- Crease does an excellent job of discussing the issues that drove people to engage in research leading to each of the equations. The chapter on Maxwell's equations is particularly well done.

I would echo Bill Bryson's book.

Olivia Judson's "Dr Tatiana" is irritating in its gimmick but fascinating in its explanation of reproductive biology.

"Black Bodies and Quantum Cats" by Jennifer Ouellette

Alan Lightman

"Vaccinated" by Paul Offit

Skloot's book and Longitude are both excellent choices. Some others from what I have read:

Farthest North, Fridtjof Nansen's memoir of the polar expedition he led, showing that there were currents in the Arctic Ocean which move sea ice around.

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! tells of one scientist's interactions with the surrounding world of the twentieth century. The sequel, What Do You Care What Other People Think?, mainly focuses on his time as a member of the panel investigating the Challenger explosion.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 05 Jun 2010 #permalink

Darwin, `The Origin of Species'. Seriously. It's a good read and incoming freshman shouldn't have a problem with the writing.

Jonathan Weiner's "The Beak of the Finch." And I don't see why Natalie Angier's "Woman: An Intimate Geography" shouldn't be on the list! It's a terrific book and fun to read. Sue, please tell me you didn't shy away from recommending it for everyone because it's "just" about women.

Also: Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's "Mother Nature" and Stephen Jay Gould's "The Mismeasure of Man."

By Jolanta Benal (not verified) on 06 Jun 2010 #permalink

I vote for "Against the Gods: the Remarkable Story of Risk", by Peter Bernstein. It's basically an account of the development of the science of probability, its applications, and its misapplications.

E=MC2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation by David Bodanis and Simon Singh

Electric Universe: How Electricity Switched on the Modern World by David Bodanis

Innumeracy by J. A. Paulos

How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff (actually it is a self-defense guide against the common errors in interpreting stats)

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

#18, Kurt: Thanks for the tip about this book. I will have to add this to my 'to read' stack.

#6, Chris Winter: Sorry, but hearing that just makes me want to add The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney. (As the great political scientist Rob Corddry noted, facts have a liberal bias.)