Date Published: December 5, 2013
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Author(s): Jane Gitschier
Partial Text: Today PLOS Genetics launches a new frontmatter feature, the “Deep Reads” column, celebrating books in the realm of genetics and, in today’s instance, beyond (Image 1). Kudos to our editorial colleague Susan Rosenberg for proposing the column’s clever name. While I’m the kickoff contributor, various members of the PLOS Genetics community will pen subsequent columns, hopefully annually.
I begin with the memoir, my favorite genre—perhaps not surprisingly since I write the ;Interviews column for this journal. In this category, my hands-down top recommendation is James Watson’s enduring The Double Helix. If you haven’t yet tagged along with this irreverent romp through the discovery of the structure of DNA, I urge you to do so. It is short and impossible to put down once you begin. The book generated quite a bit of controversy when it was written in the late 1960s; some participants in the drama argued that they were poorly portrayed and many others complained of its dismissive posthumous treatment of Rosalind Franklin. In truth, Watson’s memoir doesn’t portray Watson himself in any shining light either, and this is one of its charms. Watson’s naked memoir captures an extraordinary two-year period when post-war Cambridge, England redirected its scientific energies towards solving fundamental biological problems, and a youthful Watson hijacked Francis Crick into thinking about DNA’s structure. I recommend the new, annotated version, issued by Cold Spring Harbor Press in honor of the structure’s 60th birthday, which includes photos and documents that further bring the story to life, while also providing the historical tether that it is often accused of lacking.
Sadly, few scientists take the time to chronicle their own experiences, so it is often left to others to piece them together. Here, I recommend four “biographies” (the quotes will become apparent in a minute), and as it happens, all of them are of women and written by women (just as the four recommended memoirs were by men). Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, by Brenda Maddox, patiently takes us through Franklin’s careful crystallographic work on coal and her happy existence in Paris before repatriating to London with Randall’s group to work on DNA; it then follows her highly productive post-DNA work with Aaron Klug on the structure of RNA viruses until her premature death. We are given the context to understand how Franklin came to work on the problem of DNA, the basis for the antipathy between her and Wilkins, her resiliency post-DNA, and her tenacity throughout isolation and disease. She likely died unaware of how critical the contribution of photograph 51, taken by her student Raymond Gosling, was to one of the 20th century’s great discoveries. By the way, be on the lookout for a play entitled Photograph 51, by Anna Zeigler, which deftly covers this riveting story.
My book club and I are always on the lookout for works of fiction in which some aspect of genetics (or science, more generally) drives the plot. Unfortunately, many of these reads are unsatisfying to me; some are poorly researched or simply implausible, others are clearly fictionalized versions of actual events, yet pale in comparison to their real life stories. I must also sheepishly confess that I am not a fan of the “science fiction” genre; I know I am in the minority in this aversion, and surely other PLOS editors will extol their favorite sci-fi reads in future columns.
And now for a quick dip into a science nonfiction grab bag of delights. In Napoleon’s Buttons, co-written by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson, history meets chemistry as we learn how sugar, caffeine, dyes, tin, and a variety of other molecules shaped the course of human endeavor. Chemicals are also front and center in The Poisoner’s Handbook, an engaging inspection of murders and accidental deaths in prohibition-era New York City and the emergence of the forensic science needed to pinpoint the culprits. I thoroughly enjoyed Your Inner Fish, by Neil Shubin, who illustrates how the seeming illogic of human anatomy reveals the vestiges of evolution. If paleoanthropology interests you—and how can it not—look for Ancestral Passions, by Virginia Morell, who traces the indefatigable Leakey family in their multi-generational search for human ancestors; I am not a “night” person, but this tale had me turning pages way past midnight several nights in a row, and Olduvai Gorge is now on my bucket list. In the brilliant The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee takes us through the history of cancer awareness and its treatment; the descriptions of early breast cancer surgeries are particularly difficult to contemplate and the work of Sidney Farber was thrilling to read. And the Band Played On, by Randy Shilts, who was a journalist with the San Francisco Chronicle, is an unrelenting exposé on both the political mayhem and the dogged quest to solve an urgent medical mystery at the emergence of the AIDS epidemic.