A grand tour of epochal events in biology history.

DNA

THE SECRET OF LIFE

Timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Watson-Crick double helix model, and with a PBS series on the history of DNA hosted by Watson, this blockbuster recaps how it happened, what came before, where we are today, and what the future may hold.

And does it well. From Darwin through the eugenics movement, from the fruit-fly boys at Columbia at the beginning of the 20th century through the Collins-Venter race for the human genome at the end, it’s pretty much all here: the sterilization laws and the Holocaust, biology after WWII, pioneers like Oswald Avery, who realized it was DNA and not proteins that held the secret of life, and how W and C got it together. It’s a twice-told tale, but worth retelling, especially as pains were taken to make it generally accessible. Indeed, while the text is written in Watson’s voice, credit must surely go to Berry as an able co-author. What makes this exceptional is the extent to which it explores everything that’s happened since 1953: “Playing God” fears about recombinant DNA and genetically modified (GM) foods; the use of DNA fingerprinting; DNA analysis to determine our African origins; the hunt for the genes for Huntington’s disease, cystic fibrosis, breast cancer, and other scourges; the pros and cons of genetic testing and building DNA databases; the difficulties of gene therapy; and the potential for genetic enhancements. Unsurprisingly, Watson (Girls, Genes, and Gamow, 2002, etc.) favors GM foods, sees value in DNA databases, laments the under-use of genetic tests, and has it in for Craig Venter and firms that guard gene patents. Never shy about espousing politically incorrect views, he would like to see behavioral genetics research proceed and favors germline therapy—not tomorrow, but as we learn more. Optimism pertains throughout: Watson sees the evolution of human cooperation and love transcendent over gene enhancement for the rich and famous.

A grand tour of epochal events in biology history.

Pub Date: April 7, 2003

ISBN: 0-375-41546-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2003

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both...

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SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS

Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (General Relativity: The Most Beautiful of Theories, 2015, etc.) shares his thoughts on the broader scientific and philosophical implications of the great revolution that has taken place over the past century.

These seven lessons, which first appeared as articles in the Sunday supplement of the Italian newspaper Sole 24 Ore, are addressed to readers with little knowledge of physics. In less than 100 pages, the author, who teaches physics in both France and the United States, cogently covers the great accomplishments of the past and the open questions still baffling physicists today. In the first lesson, he focuses on Einstein's theory of general relativity. He describes Einstein's recognition that gravity "is not diffused through space [but] is that space itself" as "a stroke of pure genius." In the second lesson, Rovelli deals with the puzzling features of quantum physics that challenge our picture of reality. In the remaining sections, the author introduces the constant fluctuations of atoms, the granular nature of space, and more. "It is hardly surprising that there are more things in heaven and earth, dear reader, than have been dreamed of in our philosophy—or in our physics,” he writes. Rovelli also discusses the issues raised in loop quantum gravity, a theory that he co-developed. These issues lead to his extraordinary claim that the passage of time is not fundamental but rather derived from the granular nature of space. The author suggests that there have been two separate pathways throughout human history: mythology and the accumulation of knowledge through observation. He believes that scientists today share the same curiosity about nature exhibited by early man.

An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both scientists and general readers.

Pub Date: March 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-399-18441-3

Page Count: 96

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015

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