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Saturday, July 29, 2006

Intellectual history

I want to recommend a book I've been reading recently, The Eighth Day of Creation by H.F. Judson. It's the most detailed intellectual history of molecular biology I've yet found, covering not just the science but the scientists as well. Someone described it as a New Yorker-style book covering the discovery of DNA, RNA and protein synthesis.

It may be chauvinistic, but I can't help noticing the prominent role played by physicists who crossed over into molecular biology: Bragg, Delbruck, Crick, Wilkins, Gamow, Szilard (yes, the Gamow and Szilard you know from big bang cosmology and the atomic bomb, respectively), Walter Gilbert, etc. The influence of Schrodinger's little book What is Life? is pervasive.

It's hard for me to think of many scientific histories as good as this one, in which the writer has a deep understanding of both the science and the personalities involved. Two examples are Subtle is the Lord (Abraham Pais on Einstein) and QED and the Men Who Made It (Sam Schweber on quantum electrodynamics), but these border on unreadable for the non-specialist. Perhaps Genius, Gleick's biography of Feynman, and The Enigma, Andrew Hodge's biography of Turing, also qualify. Can anyone suggest others?

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