Romila Thapar, History of Early India from Origins to AD 1300. Last January, I was traveling in several cities in India and asked my hosts far too many questions about early Indian history. In the end, one of them (Narasimhan Ram, publisher of the newspaper The Hindu) gave me a number of books, including this text written by a leading Indian historian Romila Thapar. Beyond Thapar’s erudite and level-headed historical scholarship, she did not refrain from fascinating speculation. For example, she speculates on the strongest initial threads of political power, beyond conquest, arising in ritual and culture—much discussed, but here tied to specific archaeological/prehistorical data. Although the specifics in the book itself are on the movement of peoples, conflicts, and cultural shifts that defined the early demographics, politics, and linguistic structures of the Indian subcontinent, the big ideas map readily onto issues that are pressing in the modern world, regarding migration and the sources of cultural authority. The themes of human history that we are reliving today are so vivid, that every few pages a sentence or paragraph would leap out from the page, and I found I had to stop and put down the book for quite some time before continuing—unusual (at least for me) in reading a text of this kind.
Primo Levi, The Periodic Table. Every few years, rereading this brief masterpiece published by such a gifted writer, chemist, and direct witness to the extremes of the human experience is rewarding in a new way. The vignettes within this volume, at each reading, seem to provide a fresh perspective on the human condition, and remain relevant despite (or perhaps because of) the rapidity of change in this condition. Among its more explicitly scientific themes, the special beauty of chemistry shines forth throughout (with particular resonance for me, as with many biologists, since my own first steps toward science were from a foundation of organic and synthetic chemistry, and still to this day all of my approaches to neuroscience and psychiatry remain rooted in chemistry). The book is also autobiographical and historical, infused with Levi’s personal perspective on the horrific sociology of rising totalitarianism; tragically, this perspective may be increasingly relevant today, and historians, linguists, social scientists, anthropologists, and biologists all find meaning here. The book is composed of many independent short chapters, each titled by an element—and each reader seems to end up with a different list of favorites (the book includes purely fictional components, and, if you only have time for one of the more imaginative chapters to form an opinion of those, you can start with my personal favorite among the historical fantasies, “Lead”).
Karl Deisseroth Credit: Alison Yin/ AP Images for HHMI
Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD is the D.H. Chen Professor of Bioengineering and of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University; a foreign adjunct professor at Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm; a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator; and a visiting professor at Keio University, Tokyo. Dr. Deisseroth has developed a number of innovative research tools to study the brain, human behavior, and mental illness. Since 2014, Dr. Deisseroth has received two Dickson Prizes, the Albany Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, the Lurie Prize in Biomedical Sciences, and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Science.
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 Credit: Aynsley Floyd/ AP Images for HHMI
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.