Posted on by Dr. Shirley Tilghman
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.
Posted on by Dr. Harold Varmus
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.
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Now that we are in the “dog days” of summer, it’s time again to consider which books to pack (or load onto your e-reader) for your well-deserved getaway to the beach and beyond. With so many interesting titles published every year, it’s never easy to make recommendations. But I thought it might be fun to ask a few distinguished researchers to share a few of their favorite reads—both about science and other things in the world at large. Some might be classics; some might have just been published. It’s up to the guests to decide.
During the month of August, the NIH Director’s Blog will run a series of guest posts in which some of biomedical science’s most creative minds discuss one or two of the books they’ve been reading. I’m sure what they share will be informative, provocative, and possibly even provide you with a few more possibilities for your late summer reading list. So, please check out the blog next Tuesday for the first installment in our scientists’ summer reading series, which happens to be penned by an avid reader who also holds a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Can anyone guess who it is?