Most people will at least be mildly familiar with the story of how the structure of DNA was discovered. Francis Crick and James D. Watson are household names in this story as they went on to win a Nobel Prize. But can you name the third person to share it with them? Most people will also have heard of Rosalind Franklin, but as Gareth Williams shows, so many other people were relevant to this story. Watson and Crick only put the finishing cherry on the cake. Unravelling the Double Helix covers the preceding 85 years of breakthroughs, blind alleys, near-misses, and “beautifully executed bellyflops” by some of the greatest scientists of their time.
Many works of popular science claim to be histories of almost everything or everyone, but earth scientist Robert M. Hazen might actually be in the position to stake that claim. Whether you are talking stellar evolution, the origin of life, organic chemistry, synthetic materials, or hydrocarbon fuels – the multifaceted atom carbon is ubiquitous and pervasive. Symphony in C is a whirlwind tour through geology, biochemistry, and evolutionary biology that is an incredibly absorbing read, although in places it almost comes apart at the seams under the intensity of its enthusiasm.
Back in 2014, evolutionary biologist Andreas Wagner blew my mind. His book Arrival of the Fittest: Solving Evolution’s Greatest Puzzle gave fascinating answers to the question of where evolutionary innovations come from. I will say more about it below, but in short, there are many ways to solve a problem. But, as Life Finds a Way shows, not all solutions are equally good. To evolve from a suboptimal solution to a superior one usually involves several steps through intermediary solutions that are even worse, something that natural selection acts against. So how does evolution overcome such obstacles? And what does the answer have to do with human creativity? Can we apply these ideas further afield in education or economics? And is this book going to be as good as his last one? So many questions…
In the already unusual world of viruses, retroviruses stand out for being even more so. Called “retro” because they reverse the flow of genetic information from RNA to DNA, rather than the normal DNA to RNA, they have turned out to be ancient, omnipresent, and incredibly influential. They are also important as they cause diseases such as AIDS. With Discovering Retroviruses, Anna Marie Skalka delivers a book dedicated to this particular group that is as technical as it is fascinating.
How did we get here? It’s a simple question, but as all parents will affirm, the simplest questions can have the most complicated answers. With Quarks to Culture, Tyler Volk, a professor in biology and environmental studies, looks at our human culture and goes all the way back to the beginning (yes, the very beginning) to ask: “Is there a pattern here?”. What follows is a book that should be taken as a spirited thought experiment.
So, quick question for you. What is life?
Sorry, that’s a trick question, for the answer to this is anything but quick. The mind-boggling complexity that is life, even something as “simple” as a bacterium, somehow arises from atoms and molecules. And yet, physics and chemistry as we currently know it seem incapable of answering how life’s complexity emerges from its constituent parts. With The Demon in the Machine, well-known physicist and cosmologist Paul Davies takes a stab at it, saying we are on the verge of a breakthrough.
The problem with many history books is that they are written long after the facts, sometimes when the original protagonists are no longer alive. Historians or journalists often have no choice but to puzzle together the pieces of their story from eyewitness testimony or archival sources. Kin: How We Came to Know Our Microbe Relatives is a welcome exception to this rule. Written by emeritus microbiology professor John L. Ingraham, currently 94 years young, this book gives an intellectual history of the discipline of microbiology based on over seven decades of first-hand involvement and observation.
After the recently published Lamarck’s Revenge: How Epigenetics Is Revolutionizing Our Understanding of Evolution’s Past and Present left me little the wiser on how epigenetics actually works, I decided to track down a copy of Nessa Carey’s The Epigenetics Revolution. As one of two popular books published around the same time, it seemed like a good place to start. Peter Ward was right about one thing, this is indeed a landmark book, even if it is now a few years old.
I recently read about the American microbiologist Carl Woese (1928-2012) and his discovery of a completely new group of single-celled organisms, the Archaea, in Quammen’s book The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life. These mysterious microbes thrive under extreme environmental conditions, so I was intrigued and keen to find out more. The French microbiologist Patrick Forterre here describes these microbes, the research that led to their discovery, and the questions and answers this has thrown up. Originally published in French in 2008 as Microbes de l’Enfer, The University of Chicago Press has now made this book available in English to a wider audience.
DNA has lodged itself in the public imagination as the “blueprint” of life and as other, often slightly deceiving, metaphors. But what happens next? How do organisms actually get anything done with the information coded in DNA? For biologists, this is standard textbook fare: DNA is copied into single-stranded RNA which is then translated, three letters at a time, into amino acids that, when strung together, make up the workhorses of the cell: proteins. The cell organ, or organelle, that does the latter part is the ribosome, which Venki Ramakrishnan introduces here in Gene Machine. He has written a riveting first-hand account of the academic race to describe its structure, and how, in the process, he bagged a shared Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009.