Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer. In his brilliant debut novel, this American writer, who was born in Vietnam, uses the end and aftermath of the Vietnam War as a dramatic backdrop to explore the nature of identity and conflicts of loyalty, The anonymous narrator is a jumble of identities—the son of a Vietnamese woman and a French priest; a Communist working undercover as an aide to a South Vietnamese general; and a blood brother of both a C.I.A. assassin and a Vietcong leader. He believes in the revolution, but is haunted when he is required to murder in its name, and, ultimately, is abandoned by its leaders.
The narrative begins with a vivid portrayal of the last days of the fall of Saigon, as the narrator works feverishly to extract himself, his general and family off the rooftop of the American embassy. They ultimately land in California, where the general immediately begins to plot his return to Saigon. The narrator is hired to advise a filmmaker (referred to only as “the auteur,” but clearly meant to be Francis Ford Coppola) on a film about the war. The narrator believes he has been hired to give an authentic voice to the Vietnamese, whose sufferings and struggle have largely been untold in the West, but he fails in tragicomic fashion. In the end, the narrator is torn in two by his competing loyalties to politics and friendship. This is a deeply moving story of a young man in search of meaning in his life.
Jonathan Weiner,The Beak of the Finch. The Pulitzer Prize winner for non-fiction in 1995, this masterful book tells the 25-year story of Peter and Rosemary Grant’s study of evolution in real time in the Galapagos Islands. Beginning in 1973, the Grants, who recently retired from the faculty of Princeton University, camped several months every year on a barren rock (Daphne Major) in the Galapagos, meticulously documenting the changes in size and shape of the beaks of Darwin’s famous finches in response to changes in climate. Thanks to the dramatic 1982-83 El Nino, the Grants were able to show that as the normally arid climate, which selected for finches with sturdy short beaks that are good at cracking dry hard seeds, became tropical, finches with long narrow beaks that could drink nectar from the now-abundant vegetation came to predominate. Natural selection in action! In the course of telling this extraordinary story of scientific inquiry, Weiner writes clearly and engagingly about how Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace developed the theory of natural selection, and why it is the cornerstone on which all of biology rests.
Shirley M. Tilghman, PhD is president emerita and professor of molecular biology at Princeton University. She is well known for her scientific achievements as a mammalian developmental geneticist and for her national leadership on behalf of women in science. Her many accolades include: a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Developmental Biology, the Genetics Society of America Medal, and the L’Oreal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science.
Tags: Alfred Russel Wallace, books, Charles Darwin, El Nino, evolution, finches, Francis Ford Coppola, Galapagos, Jonathan Weiner, natural selection, Peter and Rosemary Grant, Princeton, Pulitzer Prize, Saigon, science books, summer reading, The Beak of the Finch, The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Vietnam, Vietnam War
Two Science Selections:
Horace Freeland Judson, Eighth Day of Creation. A comprehensive history of the origins and early science of the field of modern molecular biology, written by historian Horace Freeland Judson based on personal interviews with those who drove the revolution in biology. First and foremost are the science—DNA, RNA and protein, the genetic code, and gene regulation—and the scientific process—the seed ideas, the “aha” insights and the brilliant and elegant experiments. But this book is also the story of scientists in the process of discovery and of how the science that emerged was at least as much a consequence of the personalities as of the experimental skills of those involved. Fascinating, engaging, and fun—I’ve recommended this book to many, scientist and non-scientist alike.
Georgina Ferry, Dorothy Hodgkin. A superb biography of one of modern science’s most exceptional and distinguished pioneers. Awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964 for determining the crystal structures of penicillin and vitamin B12, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin faced repeated challenges as a woman attempting to study and then pursue a career in chemistry in the 1930s and 1940s in England. Hodgkin is only one of four women ever awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry; the others were Marie Curie (1911); her daughter Irene Joliot-Curie (1935); and Ada Yonath (2009). Once recognized, Hodgkin worked hard to combat social inequalities and was president for more than a decade of Pugwash, an international organization founded by Bertrand Russell and dedicated to preventing war. Hodgkin has been a role model for many, although she disagreed rather strongly with the political views and actions of her most famous student, Margaret Thatcher.
George Klein, The Atheist and the Holy City. This book was a gift to me from George Klein, a Hungarian-Swedish tumor biologist and virologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. George and his wife Eva are best known in biological circles for their pioneering discovery of the role of the Epstein-Barr virus in Burkitt’s lymphoma and other neoplasms. This book, one of many George has written, is a compilation of essays that focus on science, but incorporate history, religion and philosophy. Its sections are entitled “The Wisdom and Folly of Scientists,” “Journeys,” “Viruses and Cancer” and “The Human Condition,” and collectively touch upon topics as diverse as DNA hybridization, the discovery of Rous sarcoma virus, and the life cycle of Schistosoma mansoni, as well as the Nazi death camps, scientific creativity, and the conviction that God is an example of man’s wishful thinking. Thought-provoking and uplifting, this book is a story of science and much more. A must read for all.
Robert Horvitz, Ph.D. is the David H. Koch Professor of Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a member of the MIT McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the MIT Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. Dr. Horvitz is co-winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discoveries concerning genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death.
Tags: Ada Yonath, Bertrand Russell, books, Dorothy Hodgkin, Eighth Day of Creation, Epstein-Barr, George Klein, Georgina Ferry, history, Horace Freeland Judson, Irene Joliot-Curie, Karolinska Institute, lymphoma, Margaret Thatcher, Marie Curie, molecular biology, Nazi, Nobel Prize, penicillin, philosophy, Pugwash, religion, Rous sarcoma, Schistosoma mansoni, summer books, summer reading, The Atheist and the Holy City, virus, vitamin B12
Summertime! Long weekends, a vacation, the threat of boredom. Time for uninterrupted reading—on beaches or in air-conditioned bedrooms. A chance to look beyond the best-seller lists or the daily news to dive, with full concentration, into one or two books that some friend has argued might be a life-changing experience. In that spirit, here are two for which I would make that argument to almost any friend.
In the sphere of science: The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes (HarperCollins, 2008). Holmes is primarily a literary biographer (of Coleridge and other Romantic poets), but also an art historian and a science junkie, who has written about ballooning and women scientists. Of the many books I’ve read about the growth of the scientific enterprise, The Age of Wonder stands out for several reasons: its deep engagement with the full range of cultural and political currents in which science arises; its focus on the excitement about discovery—geographical, astronomical, chemical, biological—that permeated the late 18th and early 19th centuries; and its absorption with personal histories of people who made those discoveries. Holmes is a superb storyteller and drawn to the complexities of life (especially in Britain) that influenced the talented people—Joseph Banks, Humphry Davy, several members of the Herschel family—who made novel observations that changed our perceptions of the world and solidified the place of science.
Tags: books, genetic code, genetics, genomics, George Eliot, Humphry Davy, Joseph Banks, Life's Greatest Secret, Marshall Nirenberg, Matthew Cobb, Middlemarch, Nobel Prize, novel, reading, reading list, Richard Holmes, science books, stem cells, summer reading, The Age of Wonder