Scientific research is portrayed as an objective pursuit, but it is always influenced by an array of subjective emotions – joy, frustration, rejection, validation, egotism, confidence, worry, friendship, competition, intuition, luck, success, failure. For better or worse, it is these emotions that often determine how discoveries are made and how science is communicated.
I enjoy reading books that delve into the stories behind research discoveries and that reveal the passion, politics and personalities that drive scientific research. I previously compiled some lists of books that I recommend (you can find the lists here and here). Here is a new list of more recent books I’ve read. I hope you enjoy these. Feel free to suggest others – I’m always looking for a good read.
An Essay of Science and Narcissism: How do high-ego personalities drive research in life sciences by Bruno Lemaitre. In this very enjoyable book, Bruno Lemaitre (a Drosophila researcher) gives us his view on how narcissism and ego influence the way modern science (primarily in the biological sciences) is conducted, judged and rewarded. I highly recommend this book – read it and in Bruno’s descriptions, you’ll recognize many prominent researchers in your field. Also keep this book in mind if you read any of the other books on this or my previous lists.
Natural Obsessions by Natalie Angier. During the early ’80s, Natalie Angier spent about a year in the labs of two prominent cancer researchers, Robert Weinberg and Michael Wigler, at a time when both labs were making major discoveries into oncogene function. This book is her account of that time. It’s an amazing book that shows the good (amazing science, great scientists), the bad (competitiveness, shitty mentoring) and ugly (ego, narcissism, sexism) of life in a research lab. Have things changed since the 80s? I’m not so sure, but we definitely need more books like this. Highly recommended!!
A Feeling for the Organism by Evelyn Fox Keller. A detailed account of the life and career of Barbara McClintock. Evelyn Fox Keller does a great job in describing the struggles McClintock faced getting research positions and in discussing why it took so long for her discoveries about transposable elements to be accepted. Hint: sexism.
Elizabeth Blackburn and the Story of Telomeres: Deciphering the Ends of DNA by Catherine Brady. A very nice account of the life and career of Elizabeth Blackburn (written before she was awarded the Nobel prize). It does a great job describing the struggles she faced against gender discrimination, and also the political battles she faced regarding stem cell research when she was on the President’s Council on Bioethics during the Bush years.
Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life by Georgina Ferry. A great account of the life of one of the great scientists of the last century and the only British female scientist to receive the Nobel Prize.
Life’s Great Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code by Matthew Cobb. Like the superb ‘The Eighth Day of Creation” by Horace Freeland Judson, this excellent book by Cobb describes the period spanning the work that led to the discovery of the structure of DNA to the early days of molecular biology, when the processes of gene transcription and translation were just being described and understood. This book also goes a little further than Judson’s, and describes the implications of this ‘golden age of molecular biology’ for science and society now.
In Search of Memory: The emergence of a new science of mind by Eric Kandel. An enjoyable memoir from Kandel describing his early life and his research career – I refer you to Lemaitre’s book above. This book also includes a bizarre description of an event in young Kandel’s life – what a perv.
p53: The Gene that Cracked the Cancer Code by Sue Armstrong. A lovely, clear description of the discovery and early research on p53. It does a great job describing the early work that tried to decipher whether p53 was actually an oncogene or tumor suppressor – a great account of how knowledge we take for granted now was not always so clear cut. A great book for grad students.
The Man in the Monkeynut Coat: William Astbury and the forgotten road to the double-helix by Kersten Hall. A very nice book on the life of William Astbury, an important structural biologists, whose role in the research leading up to the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA is often forgotten.
Life’s Blueprint: The science and art of embryo creation. by Benny Shilo. A lovely, layman’s account of the process of embryogenesis by Benny Shilo (another Drosophila researcher). The book juxtaposes images of developing embryos and organisms with Benny’s own beautiful photography such that the photos become visual metaphor for the developmental process.