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.
Books that educate, stimulate and inspire (part 2).
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 forces 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. About a year ago, I compiled a list of books that I recommend (click here to see them). 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.
Blue skies and bench space: Adventures in Cancer Research by Kathy Weston. A fantastic and enjoyable description of the science, scientists and personalities at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund Laboratories in London, especially during the ‘70s and ‘80s, when the ICRF was at the forefront of research in developmental biology, cell cycle control, apoptosis and cancer. The book also serves as an excellent companion and comparison to “Life Illuminated” (below). You can also read the book free online here.
Life Illuminated: Selected Papers from Cold Spring Harbor
Volume 2, 1972–1994. An account of some of the key papers that emerged from CSHL at a time when the Laboratory was producing some of the key breakthroughs in our understanding of DNA replication, transcription, tumor viruses and cancer biology. Each paper has a commentary from one of the investigators involved in the work.
Paths to Innovation: Discovering Recombinant DNA, Oncogenes, and Prions, in One Medical School, Over One Decade. and Ambition and delight. by Henry Bourne. These are two enjoyable books from Henry Bourne. The first (Paths to Innovation) is a wonderful account of an exciting period in the history of UCSF, when the University recruited and fostered young, talented scientists who went on to make Nobel prize-winning fundamental discoveries in molecular and cellular biology. In the second book (Ambition and Delight) Henry Bourne provides an honest, enjoyable and often funny account of his career in academic research – an excellent book for young scientists embarking on a career in research.
Apprentice to genius. The Making of a Scientific Dynasty. By Robert Kanigel. A wonderful book that describes a dynasty of mentor-protégé relationships among a group of brilliant neuroscientists (Steve Brodie, Julius Axelrod, Sol Snyder, and Candace Pertall). It’s one of the best and most incredibly honest accounts of what scientific mentor-protégé relationships are really like. Highly recommended
Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize. By Sean B. Carroll An amazing account of the story of Jacques Monod and Albert Camus, two friends involved in the French Resistance during the Second World War, and who then went on to produce some of the greatest work in their respective fields (molecular biology and literature)
Ordinary geniuses. How Two Mavericks Shaped Modern Science. By Gino Segre. This enjoyable book tells the story of Max Delbruck and George Gamow, two friends who pioneered some of the most important breakthroughs in molecular biology and physics in the last century.
Laboratory Life. The Construction of Scientific Facts. By Bruno Latour. In this book, Bruno Latour, presents a sociological study of the process of lab research and scientific discovery. Although the study was conducted decades ago, there is a lot to learn from this book on how and why scientific research is organized the way it is. We need more books like this.
Entering an Unseen World. A Founding Laboratory and Origins of Modern Cell Biology (1910-1974) by Carol L Moberg. This enjoyable book describes the history of cell biology told through some of the pioneering discoveries made over the last century at the Rockefeller University
The Molecular Vision of Life. Caltech, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Rise of the New Biology by Lily E Kay. This books provides an interesting account of a period between the ‘30s and ‘50s when Caltech and the Rockefeller Foundation joined forces to foster the biology that ultimately would lead and inspire to rise of modern genetics and molecular biology. Interestingly, this work had its roots in an early eugenics program supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.
The lab is looking to recruit new postdocs and grad students. Our lab investigates how growth is controlled during animal development. We use a combination of molecular and genetic approaches to investigate the cell-cell signalling pathways and the genetic mechanisms that govern the control of cell, tissue and body growth in Drosophila. Our main focus to-date has been the conserved insulin and TOR kinase pathways, and understanding how they regulate cellular and animal metabolism to drive growth. Further information on our research can be found here. Recent publications can be found here.
POSTDOCS: applicants with a Ph.D. and strong background in developmental biology, genetics, or molecular biology are encouraged to apply. Interested individuals should send a CV, a short statement of research interests, and three names of references to grewalss@ucalgary.
GRAD STUDENTS: applicants with a strong undergraduate degree in any area related to the biological sciences are encouraged to apply. Interested individuals should send a CV, a short statement of research interests, and three names of references to grewalss@ucalgary.
“Eighth day of Creation” for developmental biology?
I’ve just posted a list of science books that I recommend for all molecular, cellular and developmental biologists. In this list I included the classic book “The Eighth Day of Creation: Makes of the Revolution in Biology” by Horace Freeland Judson.
The “Eighth Day” has become a classic for several reasons. First, the subject matter: the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA and the subsequent work in molecular biology rank as some of the important breakthroughs in 20th century science. Second, the personalities: an incredible group of unique, quirky, but ultimately brilliant scientists. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the writer, Horace Freeland Judson: Judson portrayed the science and scientists with great style and insight.
What could or would a modern “Eighth Day” look like? Certainly, there is plenty to write on the theme of the original book – molecular biology. But what about an “Eighth Day” for modern developmental biology? This is something I started to think about following a twitter conversation with @avinashtn. To my knowledge no such book exists. However, I think there is a fascinating story to tell – perhaps too much to tell (flies, fish, worms, screens, molecular genetics, and more) – and plenty of interesting characters and personalities. But who would write it? Who is the Judson of our time?
Scientific research is portrayed as an objective pursuit – we experiment, we observe, we draw logical conclusions, and we write ‘matter-of-fact’ scientific papers. But behind every scientific discovery is a largely neglected ‘human’ story – a narrative that is shaped by different emotions and forces: joy, frustration, rejection, validation, egotism, confidence, worry, friendship, competition, intuition, luck, success, failure. For better or worse, it is these forces that influence how discoveries are made and how science is communicated.
I enjoy reading books that uncover this narrative and that reveal the passion, politics and personalities behind scientific research. I’ve come up with a list of books that I recommend. Many delve into the stories behind research discoveries. Others are great resources for understanding, communicating and teaching science. I hope you enjoy these books and feel free to suggest others – I’m always looking for a good read.
The list is in no particular order, but the first four are books that I particularly like.
(Note: Part 2 of this list is here)
The Eighth Day of Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Biology (Horace Freeland Judson). The book is the authoritative account of the people and personalities that shaped the early years of molecular biology, from the work leading up to the discovery of the structure of DNA to studies in ‘60s and early ‘70s on the control of gene expression. This is a fantastic book and a must-read for every molecular, cellular and developmental biologist.
On Writing Well (William Zinsser) Writing well isn’t easy – in fact it is often very hard. But in this book, Zinsser writes with great wit and warmth about the struggle to put down on paper what we really mean to say. He does a wonderful job of highlighting the bad habits that creep into our writing – excess words, unnecessary clutter, and unclear sentences. It’s an incredibly enjoyable and valuable read. I bore students to death talking about how good this book, and I always re-read it before writing any new papers or grants. Every lab should have a copy of this book.
The Statue Within (Francois Jacob). A poignant memoir from Jacob, the 1965 Nobel Prize winner. The book contains amazing accounts of his wartime experience in Northern Africa and his time at Institute Pasteur where he made his pioneering discoveries on transcriptional control in E Coli (along with Jacques Monod).
Oh the places you’ll go (Dr Seuss). There are many good books that discuss the challenges of being a young scientist (student, postdoc, new PI) and of establishing a career. But none can match than this book…seriously. Read it in moments of despair and it will provide inspiration….that’s 98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.
The following are other good memoirs and biographies:
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (Siddhartha Mukherjee), An amazing book that does a beautiful job of describing the history of cancer medicine, therapy and research – a comprehensive book written with great style.
Egg and Ego, an almost true story of life in the biology lab (Jonathan Slack). The title says it all – Jonathan Slack does a wonderful job telling the reader about the “real” life in a biological research lab – the bizarre way in which scientists compete for publication in “prestige’ journals, the ego of lab heads striving to be the ‘best’, the warped way in which competition to work in the most ‘fashionable’ research areas drives the scientific agenda. This is a brilliant book.
Avoid Boring People and The double helix (both James Watson). Much has been written about the Double Helix, but “Avoid Boring People” is also a great read. Both books provide a revealing insight to the personality of Jim Watson – an incredibly smart guy who was also a bit of an ass.
Francis Crick – hunter of life’s secrets (Robert Olby), and What Mad Pursuit (Francis Crick) – The other half of the Watson/Crick duo. What Mad Pursuit is an autobiography and a more measured account of the discovery of the structure of DNA. Richard Olby’s biography provides a wonderful insight into Crick’s remarkable scientific life.
I also recommend looking at the Crick papers in the archives of the National Library of Medicine. These archives contain (almost?) all of Crick correspondences throughout his research life. These letters provide a fascinating first-hand picture of Crick as the “Godfather” during the ground-breaking days of molecular biology- sharing his ideas and thoughts with his peers, advising others about their research, and sometimes admonishing colleagues for their less then collegial approach to science (see the letters between Crick and Alex Rich concerning Rich’s sneakiness when publishing the structure of tRNAs).
Max Perutz and the secret of life (Georgina Ferry) and I wish I’d made you angry earlier (Max Perutz). Georgina Ferry’s excellent biography captures the quirky but brilliant Max Perutz, who won the Nobel Prize for elucidating the structure of haemoglobin. Perutz was also a very thoughtful scientist and effective leader (I’d wish I’d made you angry earlier is a series of essays from Perutz). He was the head of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge during the ‘60s and ‘70s – a period in which the LMB was making groundbreaking discoveries in molecular biology (and in the process, garnering many Nobel Prizes). Money quote from Perutz that should be in bold in every university administrative office:
“Creativity in science, as in the arts, cannot be organised. It arises spontaneously from individual talent. Well-run laboratories can foster it, but hierarchical organisation, inflexible, bureaucratic rules and mountains of futile paperwork can kill it”.
RNA – life’s indispensible molecule (James Darnell) – A detailed and enjoyable account of RNA research, from early studies that identified the existence of mRNA, rRNA and tRNAs to recent work on miRNAs. Darnell does an excellent job of highlighting the key studies and researchers, and providing important historical context to models of gene expression that we sometimes take for granted.
The Art of Politics and Science (Harold Varmus). In this brilliant memoir, Varmus describes his path from English Literature PhD student to head of NIH and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. In particular, the book provides a fascinating insight into how Varmus managed the switch from running a lab to running the NIH – similar approach, larger scale.
Ahead of the Curve (Shane Crotty) An entertaining account of the scientific life of David Baltimore. It does a good job of covering the Imanishi-Kari case – one of the high profile cases of alleged scientific fraud.
Lords of the Fly (Robert Kohler) – an enjoyable account of the early days of Drosophila research covering the discoveries and research of Thomas Hunt Morgan and his scientific “offspring”.
Reconceiving the gene: Seymour Benzer’s adventures in phage genetics (Frederic Holmes) and Time, Love and Memory (Jonathan Weiner). Two entertaining books about Seymour Benzer, one of the great biologists of the 20th Century. Holmes’ book provides a detailed account of Benzer’s early work on phage genetics and in particular his incredibly clever approach to map genes. Weiner’s excellent book provides a superb account of Benzer’s later work (and the work of his scientific ‘offspring’) using Drosophila to study the genetic basis of behaviour.
Phage and the origins of molecular biology (Edited by John Cairns, Günter Stent and James Watson) andOrigins of Molecular Biology: A Tribute to Jacques Monod (edited by Agnes Ullmann) – two collections of essays and reminiscences about Max Delbruck and Jacques Monod, Nobel winning biologists during the ground-breaking days of molecular biology. These revealing and often candid essays uncover the personalities of both scientists – intellectually brilliant, but also forceful, dominating and sometimes ruthless (see essay on Monod by Martin Pollock).
We can sleep later: Alfred D Hershey and the Origins of Molecular Biology (Edited By Franklin Stahl). Another collection of essays, this time about Nobel prizewinner and phage geneticist Alfred Hershey. He was more reserved that Delbruck and Monod but no less brilliant and influential during the early days of molecular biology. He inspired the concept of “Hershey heaven” – having an experimental approach that always works and performing it over and over again. He was also a very thoughtful scientist and a great writer. The title “We can sleep later” comes from the last line of a letter that Hershey wrote to contributors of a book on Phage that he was editing, urging them to work harder to get their manuscripts submitted to him.
A slot machine, a broken test tube (Salvador Luria). A revealing, but sometimes dry, autobiography of Luria, who along with Delbruck and Hershey, was awarded a Nobel prize for work on phage and bacterial genetics.
Decades of scientific research have provided exquisite details about all manner of complex biological phenomena. But sometimes the hardest job is to step back from the intricate details and clearly convey the ‘big-picture’ logic by which biological systems – from the smallest molecular machines to entire organisms – are assembled and function. The following books do a fantastic job of this:
A Genetic Switch (Mark Ptashne) and Genes and Signals (Mark Ptashne and Alexander Gann) Two wonderful books that describe the logic behind gene transcription, from simple genetic switches in phage to developmental control of gene expression in animals.
The Making of a Fly (Peter Lawrence). Lawrence writes with style and clarity about the genetic mechanisms by which a single cell (the fertilized egg) develops into a multicellular animal (the adult fly). This classic book is a little old (1992) but the scientific logic that underlies the developmental processes described in the book still largely hold true. Buy it from Amazon, if you have a spare $23 million!
Wetware: A computer in every living cell (Dennis Bray) and Life’s Ratchet: How molecular machines extract order from chaos (Peter Hoffmann) – two great books that outline the ‘molecular machinery’ within cells. Although the books are mainly for a more lay audience, they make excellent reading for all molecular and cellular biologists especially graduate students.
Finally some more great books on communicating
Field Notes on Science and Nature (edited by Michael Canfield) – a series of fascinating essays from a range of biologists on how they on document and record their scientific findings.
Visual Strategies: A practical guide to graphics for scientists and engineers (Angela de Pace and Felice Frankel) and Slide:ology: The art and science of creating great presentations (Nancy Duarte) – two great resources on how to draw scientific figures, how to clearly present data and how to make visually appealing slides and presentations.
Several short sentences about writing (Verlyn Klinkenborg) Inspiring words about writing.
A new News Focus piece in Science on size control during development