Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Valentine's Reading

Since tomorrow is Valentine's Day, I was going to suggest a good book appropriate to the date. As is often the case, that book suggests some others in a chain until we finally get back to another book appropriate for the day, though unfortunately for that very reason it is not a good book.

The first book presents a small challenge. While I would never consider myself a prude, its title could potentially cause filters everywhere to flag this site as unsuitable for the younger set (I'm sure a lot of elementary school kids read the site fanatically). But, I hate to be one to change content, especially in a book's title. There's nothing actually pornographic about the book, except the cover -- but only if you have six legs & antennae. So, I will write out the title, but you will need to translate one word.

The book is Olivia Judson's Dr.Tatiana's TCTGAANNN Advice to All Creation. The book is structured as a series of letters to an advice column, letters from various creatures perplexed by misadventures in their love life. Fish who wake up a different gender, mice who are sure their mates are cheating on them, etc. While the schtick could have worn thin, I enjoyed it throughout. She uses a lot of humor, but also details the myriad of reproductive strategies found across the animal world (if I remember correctly, some bacteria slip in near the end). Since reading the book, I can't help but read a story on a novel strategy and think: That would make a great Dr. Tatiana letter. I also get warm inside thinking pondering the notion that Dr. Tatiana should be required high school biology class reading. On the one hand, the students might actually want to read the book! Even better would be the reaction of certain folk, who would be having a hard time deciding whether to be more upset about the S word or about the E word sprinkled throughout (Evolution).

Judson turns out to be the daughter of Horace Judson, whose The Eighth Day of Creation is another must read. Eighth Day describes three of the major early thrusts of molecular biology: the assault on the nature of DNA and the genetic code, the quest to understand gene regulation and the first solving of protein structures. I won't claim it is a small book (686 pages -- and not a large typeface!) or light reading, but in many places you can begin to feel the excitement those pioneers felt as they pushed forward and some of the outsized personalities of the scientists. Some biotech books capture this: Invisible Frontiers (about the early days of recombinant DNA work & the race to clone insulin) and The Billion Dollar Molecule (about the founding of Vertex Pharmaceuticals) would fall into that category; two books I read more recently (and have forgotten the titles) failed miserably -- just the facts ma'am (which has something to do with my forgetting the titles).

Eighth Day is the work of a professional author and will weigh down your backpack. For a lighter touch, both physically & intellectually, try James Watson's The Double Helix. It is, of course, a memoir and Watson was willing to say outlandish things. The opening line is a classic: "I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood". I got to meet Watson two summers ago at a scientific meeting (it is a great sadness I never got to meet Crick) and he is just as verbally audacious in person. But again, it does give some feel for the excitement of the time and how high feelings ran.

But finally, please DON'T read Watson's sequel, Genes, Girls, and Gamow: After the Double Helix. Perhaps with a good editor it could have been boiled down into something enjoyable to read, but I'm not sure there would be enough left. Watson spends far too much time on his social life -- and particularly his love life (egad! it's in the title!). Valentine's Day or not, the last thing I want to read is an expanded version of anyone's, even one of the towering figures of 20th century science, little black book.

1 comment:

Sandra Porter said...


I read "Genes, Girls, and Gamow." It was okay. I was impressed by the notion that Gamow set up a database to see how often different kinds of codons occurred.

I was kind of amazed though at Watson's arrogance and his surprise that he could get deported from England, after winning the Nobel Prize, for something as simple as failing to keep up with his VISA requirements.