Skip to main content

A History of Molecular Biology – Michael Morange ***

Michel Morange’s efforts in the history of molecular biology come to life in his appropriately named book, The History of Molecular Biology. While we take for granted now that DNA is the genetic material, this conclusion stemmed from many experiments and this is where the book starts. We all know the progress made since then with things like cloning and DNA amplification (polymerase chain reaction). Michel Morange guides us on a historical trip through these developments and even takes a look into the future. The book is not organized in a traditional chronological order. Rather it is divided into themes such as “The chemical nature of the gene” or “Deciphering the genetic code”. Within each theme, however, the events are outlined in chronological order.
The strongest point of the book was to put the development of molecular biology into context. It provided an eye-opening view of the competition between various schools of thought and controversies about the discoveries. Its major weakness is the lack of biographical material about the individual scientists, who I am sure were interesting people in their own rights. Another weakness is that the book was originally written in French and was translated by Matthew Cobb. I found that the translation was incomplete in that some of the French sentence structure remained, surprising since Cobb himself seems to be a very good writer and the author of delightful The Egg and Sperm Race.
Overall this book was very interesting and fun to read. I recommend it thoroughly to those unfamiliar with molecular biology, although this type of reader may have to do some research to clarify some of the concepts. I even more strongly recommend it to people who are familiar with molecular biology but who have not kept up. The book provides an excellent review of the material with the addition of the competitive context of the times.
Review by Stephen Goldberg


Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …