Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Clearing the bookshelf

My email box recently resembled the scene in the first Harry Potter book where the boy learns his true heritage. The torrent of messages did not arrive by owl, but were from someone trying to reach me with important news: I was holding a heap of overdue library books.

Alas, I can't claim to have read them all. I don't get to the public library as often as I would like, but when I get there I tend to bring back a bunch. I'm a sucker for books in the rack or end-of-aisle displays, plus I tend to get a big cluster of books in one subject area to see which I like. Throw in the ability to request books from virtually anywhere at anytime via the Internet, and it can really be feast-or-famine.

One of the books which was overdue was one I had to wait on, How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman. This is a book everyone should take a stab at. First, it is an interesting analysis of how people think; while it is in a medical context, many of the pitfalls and strategies he explores are relevant everywhere. Second, most if not all of us will be patients at some time, or interested parties in the medical care of loved ones. By understanding the mental traps doctors can fall into, patients & patient advocates can better assist doctors in their care and recognize when the doctor is not a good match for the patient or the problem.

Groopman also comes across as a real mensch. He seems like the sort of person you'd try to grab at departmental tea or after a seminar -- and he'd actually speak with you. I certainly didn't agree with all his conclusions in the book, but I could see enjoying any discussion he might bring forth. He is also honest about when he has himself fallen into traps, such as his own arthritis coloring his early evaluation of COX-2 inhibitors (he wrote an article in a national lay magazine touting them as super aspirin).

Another overdue book was Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA. I started reading it on the supposition that most of what I knew about Franklin was from Watson's books, which seemed embarassing. I later realized that I had also read Eighth Day of Creation, so some balance was already there. The book does a good job of laying out her many contributions in crystallography, why the time of the race for the double helix was completely awful for her, and the many challenges of being a Jewish woman scientist in English scientific labs of the 40's and 50's.

My one complaint with the book is that while it shows her famous diffraction photograph of DNA, the book (and probably every other one I've ever seen with the photo) lacks any of the prior photos for comparison. It would also be interesting to see the unpublished manuscript on the DNA structure that Aaron Klug later unearthed, to see how close she was to the solution when Watson & Crick scooped it away. On the point of how they did it, there is no extreme skullduggery discussed here: just a clueless Maurice Wilkins leaking the key data to an opportunistic Watson. It is also interesting to better understand the collaborations she had with each of W&C after the helix; it would seem that professionally she didn't see them as thieves of her glory.

One interesting speculation that hit me early on and is discussed late in the book. Franklin's life was cut short by ovarian cancer. I hadn't realized she was from an Ashkenazi background, a heritage that is unfortunately at higher risk than other populations of carrying BRCA mutations. Alternately, many who saw her work describe her as being particularly unworried by safety precautions around the X-ray beams, though to some degree this was common & their recollections may be colored by her outcome.

Alas, one book that got back unread was Invisible Frontiers, the story of the race to clone insulin. I read it as a senior in college, but it is really due for a re-read. One could imagine staying quite busy just reading biographies around the double helix : I'm really due to re-read Watson, Wilkin's autobiography is wait-listed, and Crick's autobiography somehow was in an earlier batch of books held (but not read) until overdue.

And then there are those owls; having now finished the last book in the series & read the first (and started the second) with my little wizard, the temptation is there to jump ahead and re-read the rest to better understand all the characters & threads woven in the last book. Alas, there still aren't any good clues to the genetics of Mugglery.

1 comment:

Neil said...

I enjoyed the Rosalind Franklin biography; I guess it was written with an agenda to redress the negative portrayal in The Double Helix, but none the worse for that.

With regard to the earlier data and how close she was to the structure, I guess many notes and photos have simply not survived. She was definitely onto the helical structure though.

Check out the DNA riddle archive, part of the Rosalind Franklin papers, which has some of her lab notes. In particular, this draft paper, "A Note on Molecular Configuration in Sodium Thymonucleate", is dated one day before the news of the Watson-Crick model broke and lays out the evidence for a 2-stranded helix.