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Book review: the Eighth Day of Creation

Horace Judson’s “The Eighth Day of Creation” (only available used, to my knowledge, but worth every penny and who cares if your copy is a little tattered) was a foundational book for me in the path that lead to my career. It makes fascinating reading for anyone interested in how science actually takes place–conversations, inspirations, blind alleys, discovery. A brief book review follows.

It looks back on the glory days of Molecular Biology–characterization of DNA as the genetic material, its structure, the ‘coding problems’  (how nucleotides ‘mean’ amino acids), mapping the flow of information from DNA to protein, assignment of the amino acids to codons, characterization of genes and their regulation.

I find the author has an amazing ability to capture the essence of important ideas in a way that  is accessible to folks with basic biology or an interesting in thinking things through (or so I recall from my first reading 35 years ago :-)), while simultaneously capturing personalities, first-hand accounts, and a sense of real-time discovery and detective work. I’ll admit some of the earliest and end sections to be a bit of a slog, so I beg you to make it to the discovery of DNA structure before making a judgment.

I think it’s useful to remember that for many of the topics covered, one is hearing from the entire community of folks who were deeply involved (and able to make contributions–it’s hard not to notice what an exclusive demographic of participants is involved). Most of the events took place when the entire biological community was thinking about the same questions–these were Big Ideas in the best sense. Indeed, they still are–this is the stuff from which Introductory Biology courses are still made (and, one presumes, always will be).

While a great pleasure just to read or share with young scientists-in-the-making, it could also be the basis of a course in history of biology, or great experiments. As a presenter, the anecdotes and knowledge of the actual history can be used to greatly enrich the presentation. Indeed, I’ll close with one of my favorite quotes. Erwin Chargaff apparently was a bit bitter that is Rules did not make as large a contribution as they might have done, nor receive the acknowledgment they could have, in the elucidation of the structure of DNA. Speaking of the fame of Watson and Crick, he said:

That in our day such pygmies throw such giant shadows only shows how late in the day it has become.

(From Horace Judson’s “Eighth Day of Creation”). What a brilliant analogy! And you can rather feel the bitterness…

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