As a child, Elizabeth Hadly was always outdoors. Whether she’s digging holes or climbing trees, she’s always been “curious about the natural world.”
Years later, that deep curiosity about the environment prompted Hadly, now a biology professor at the new Doerr School of Sustainability and faculty director of the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, to become the faculty member chosen to select the theme for the annual three-book program: biodiversity .
This year’s selection included Lulu Miller’s book Why Fish Don’t Exist, Ed Yong’s book Immense World and Cyril Dion’s film Animal, works which Hadly described as “capturing the bewildering, magnificent and enthusiastic diversity of life on the planet to have. ”
Friday’s event during the New Student Orientation (NSO), where Yong and Dion, along with Hadley, shared their motivations and insights from their work with the Class of 2026, marked the latest in a tradition that dates back to 2004, when the three-book program was started. The program aims to create a shared intellectual experience for incoming freshman and transfer students.
Miller was unable to join the others in the discussion and will instead address students in October as part of the Civic, Liberal and Global Education curriculum.
The works emphasize the dynamic nature of biodiversity and its relationship to time and humanity, the speakers said.
Immense World explores the idea that by changing the environment, humans not only harm animals directly, but also affect the unique and invisible way they perceive the world. Why Fish Don’t Exist is a book about Miller’s own life and the life of David Starr Jordan, a fish taxonomist who was also Stanford’s first president and a eugenicist. The film Animal documents the journey of teenagers Vipulan Puvaneswaran and Bella Lack to understand the ecological crises caused by direct human impact on biodiversity.
Yong, a permanent writer at The Atlantic, said he had a childhood with an encyclopedic fascination with animals that led to his later career as a science writer. His book explores the idea of the environment, a German word for the way different animals experience and perceive the world in unique ways,
“I find [the umwelt] is a very humbling idea,” Yong said. “The reason it’s important to me to write an entire book about it is that I think it inspires a sense of joy, curiosity and empathy for the entire animal kingdom. Because there are many ways, there are new ways of experiencing the world that are different from us. Every time one of these species disappears, we lose the ability to understand the world.”
Those sentiments were shared by Isaiah Davies ’26, who attended the NSO event.
“I think Yong’s book definitely changed my view of the outside world,” Davies said. “The day before I flew here, I was sitting in my backyard looking up at the stars, and I remembered from the book how he talked about noise pollution from airplanes. I think it made me a little bit more attuned to that kind of impact on nature.”
Dion said he was inspired to create the new film after feeling the “desperation” of other young activists while taking part in global climate strikes to create new solutions to the climate crisis, away from the typical discourse about electric cars or decarbonization.
“For me, the core problem of the ecological crisis is that at some point we began to live in a narrative in which the living world around us is a field of resources that we can use to achieve economic growth and acquire new objects have new iPads and iPhones and cars and factories,” Dion said. “As long as we look at the world this way, without understanding that we are creatures in living ecosystems and all interdependent, we will never solve any part of this crisis.”
The film focuses on two activists who, at 18, are the same age as many incoming students.
The activists’ youth also caught the eye of Hadly, who said the film made her “remember that I’ve lost my own innocence to the world.”
Ahead of the event, Hadly told The Daily she hopes this year’s program will inspire more students to think about the different ways they can help solve global critical problems and better contextualize themselves in the world. With the choice of topic, she also wants to impress the importance of biodiversity.
“Biodiversity is better than any museum in the world, in my opinion,” Hadly said. “It’s more valuable than the Mona Lisa, which we could technically replicate. We will never reproduce a wild ecosystem no matter how much we think we know how to make things.”