Sunday, November 12, 2006

Bayman's Book Club

There's nothing I like better than a piece of classic science literature. And in the true tradition of wine-snobs and gold-digging socialites, older is invariably better. Inspired by Discover magazine's compilation of their 25 greatest science books of all time (check out the Dec. issue), I thought I'd throw out a few of my faves to at least fuel some discussion at the next podcast. The list is of course incomplete, as is my reading progress through most of these works.

The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin (1859).
The famous evolutionary theory contained within the hundreds of pages of this biological epic can be described in only a paragraph. While the theory was revolutionary to say the least, reading through the pages of CD's own words offers a great look into a truly rigorous and critical scientific mind. Darwin's ability to influence thinkning and open minds to new ideas was likely in large part to the beautiful exploration of the arguments AGAINST his theory which he systematically deconstructs and ultimately uses to strengthen his position.

What is Life? Erwin Schrodinger (1944).
Leave it to a physicist to shake the foundations of science with three words and a question mark. I originally wanted to see what this book was all about because James Watson cited it as his inspiration to seek the structure of the gene. Unfortunately I don't totally know what it's all about yet because the first few paragraphs got me thinking about genetics so much that I set off on a tangent of reading basic genetics (see next title) and haven't yet found my way back to poor old Erwin.

Experiments in Plant Hybridization, Gregor Mendel (1865).

Reading this paper one is struck by the stark contrast between the massive significance of this work (ie the founding of modern genetics) and its sheer humility. A monk counting pea plants in his garden. It doesn't get any humbler than that. He also puts forward in these pages a great example of how to write a real scientific paper. Of course, no mention in the discussion predicting how his discoveries would cure the diseases of humankind, extend lifespan or save civilization...(nor are there any trojan horse analogies for that matter)

Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology, Richrd Sole and Brian Goodwin (2000). Before anyone was talking about "Systems Biology", this book attracted my attention for its elegant use of nonlinear and "chaos" mathematics to describe the weird and fascinating behaviour of biological systems ranging from viral quasispecies to ant civilizations to the human brain. By no means a fully-developed classic, but I though it was pretty cool at the time.

Viruses and the Nature of Life, Wendell Stanley, Evans Valens and others (1961). Fundamental virology by the people who discovered it. Written back in the day when there was no microarray or RNAi and viruses were still the sexiest and coolest thing out there, it's hard to read this little book even today and not come away thinking that viruses are the answer to everything. Even the black-and-white illustrations are great. If I ever taught a introductory course to virology I'd base it on this book. Also full of great general biological prophecy, for example, in cancer: "Huebner discovered that adenoviruses would destory the abnormal cells of cervical cancer in women...However, the virus could not destroy all the cancer cells before antibodies to the virus developed...Work of this general nature is only in its selective cultivation of mutant virus strains, it should be possible to develop viruses which ignore normal cells but will have a special predeliction for the destruction of cancer cells." Hmmm...sounds kind of like an oncolytic virus...


Anonymous Coward said...

Hmmm good suggestions. Here are some of my favorites:

-Feynman's biography: "Surely you're joking mr Feynman". While not a real science book I had to check it out after I met someone who knew Feynman and the crazy stories he told me. It's inspiring to read for a scientist.

-Selfish Gene, Dawkins. Infamous now for his cruzading atheism, Dawkins really shines in that book. I think it's a must read for any molecular biologist. Follow that with Medawar, Huxley and Gould if you like evolution.

-Emperor's new mind, Penrose. Had to read this after reading Broca's brain by Sagan. It's a hard read because of all the math, but it has incredible insights. It will make you want to learn about quantum mechanics to understand biology. It's all about how the brain might work and computability.

-Brief history of time, Stephen Hawking. Suprinsingly easy read after all the bad publicity you hear about the book. Good primer on cosmology and quantum effects for someone just casually interrested.