8 Essential Books Every Young Biologist Should Read
It is incredibly important for aspiring young scientists to keep up to date with the scientific literature. We all know that some journal articles are a slog, and critiquing other’s research is often an onerous task. Sometimes it’s good to have a break. What follows is a list of popular science books I have found to be quite helpful and I thought I might share them with you.
2 The Double Helix by James Watson and What Mad Pursuit by Francis Crick
Watson and Crick are undoubtedly the greatest double act in the history of biology. They’re the yin and yang of the discipline. The Statler and Waldorf of wooly hypotheses. Our scientific forebears have reputations which precede them and that will outlive us all. So it is nice to hear them wax lyrical on science. Somebody once said that reading a book was like borrowing someone else’s brain for a while. I’d say I agree with that. You get to think who they think, feel how they feel, and experience what they experience. Who better to read to get a handle on molecular biology malarky than the guys who discovered DNA.
These books tell the story of their fateful discovery, albeit from slightly differing perspectives. Watson and Crick each describe the circumstances in which this early cutting edge research occurred, including the controversial access they had to Rosalind Franklin’s data. These books offer an important lesson to a young scientist not covered in the curriculum: The importance that factors such as personality and ego play in the world of research. Bitesize Bio’s review of the Double Helix can be found here.
Read these to get a perspective on how discoveries are made and to see how ego and personality play large roles in research.
3. Time, Love, Memory by Jonathan Weiner
During my first year in the lab a friend loaned me this book about the pioneering work of pioneering geneticists such as Thomas Hunt Morgan and the content lead me to consider for the first time what I believe to be one of the biggest practical problems faced by modern Molecular Biologists with an interest in genetics. The whole field is moving so fast that when you arrive in the lab as a newbie it can be very difficult to pick up. It’s like going into a movie halfway though and being expected to fully understand the plot, subtext and interactions between all the characters immediately.
As a student you are dropped in the deep end of the pool and expected to learn how to swim quickly. This book provides some extremely useful historical context to the kind of work happening all over the world today. There’s a lot of interesting descriptions of the kinds of behavioural genetics experiments performed on Drosophila,and after all who doesn’t love a bit of Drosophila chat?
Read this if you’ve ever wondered where all those bizarre gene names come from.
4. Virolution by Frank Ryan
Did you know that the evolution of all life on earth is driven by a host-parasite co-evolutionary arms race? That’s an unprovable hypothesis, but a compelling case is presented for it in this text. In addition to some pretty esoteric pondering as to where life comes from, the author also provides interesting examples of viruses in action, including the fish that spontaneously get sick and die from a virus hidden in their own DNA, which becomes activated when the fish move beyond reproductive age helping to maintain a sustainable population in the ecosystem.
Read this if you’re ready to accept that viruses may actually be our buddies when it comes to evolution.
5. Cantor’s Dilemma by Carl Djerassi
This is the only piece of fiction on the list. A novel in the emerging genre of lab lit. While shows like CSI have developed an unrealistic expectation of what science can achieve and the ease with which it does it, the ever growing corpus of this genre manages to depict science in a more realistic way while retaining the drama and entertainment one expects from a good book. This book provides an interesting insight into the human aspect of research and explores some of the ethical issues thatcan arise for young scientists.
Read this for some academic intrigue, for a meditation on research ethics or for some quiet relaxation over a glass of wine.
6. A Life Decoded by Craig Venter
The Godfather of synthetic Biology.The architect of the Human Genome Project. Arguably the single biggest ego in science just now. Supposedly there was a feeling amongst the scientific community that once we had sequenced the human genome that it would only be a matter of time until every known disease was cured. But upon completion the genome turnout out to be a Pandora’s box. The 80% of the genome initially thought to be junk DNA was a veritable micro-verse of previously unknown epigenetic effects. To misquote Haldane: ‘not only is biology more complex than we assume, it is more complex than we can assume’.
This memoir written by Craig Venter details the leading scientist’s early life, his reasons for getting into research and chronicles the successes and setbacks of his career. A considerable portion of the text details the race to sequence the human genome and his subsequent work in synthetic biology. Craig Venter has punctuated his account with results from his own genome and a discussion of how this relates to potential future health problems.
Also of interest is the account of the competition between state funded and independent enterprise trying to achieve the same goal. James Watson has a cameo in it. As does James Joyce.
Read this if you want to know what it takes to be a genetic heavyweight.
7. Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre
Either this, or Bad Science should be required reading for any and all aspiring scientists (probably both). I’ve chosen Bad Pharma as it is the most recent, and therefore up to date, account of the issues faced with medical research today. I studied originally under the banner of Translational Medicine, which posed the question ‘Why does only a tiny percentage of medical research ever make it to clinic?’.
In my naiveté I’d assumed the reason was that venturing into the unknown as biologists do, the endeavour of scientific discovery was a Darwinian process and therefore inherently wasteful. As I played with my pipettes I came to realise that the strong pressure to ‘publish or perish’ is a mantra of academic research means that those who are apt to mislead themselves with biased experiments or improper statistical analysis, or those who outright lie will be more successful than the honest meticulous scientist.
Read this to better understand the real challenges facing medical researchers who aim to bring treatments to clinic, and for tips on how to identify and avoid the snake oil scientists out there.
8. The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley
And now for something completely different. Written by the brother of Thomas Huxley (of electrophysiological fame). If you’re doing a PhD you will ultimately have a doctorate in philosophy, assuming everything goes accordingly to plan. While ‘philosophy’ is a little bit more dry than the halcyon metaphysics of yesteryear, this book offers valuable insight on the more esoteric forms of traditional thought.
In this work, Huxley attempts to distil ancient wisdom to identify the common threads present across world religions. During your ongoing intellectual development it is important to be well rounded. This is difficult with the moral imperative to ‘GENERATE MORE DATA’ looping at 80,000 decibels in your head constantly. Remember that there is a big wide world outside the lab as hard as that may be to believe sometimes. You will benefit from a little bit of perspective.
Read this for that perspective. Also, you should probably go to the gym more often.
What more great books for scientists? Check out our previous post Feed Your Head: Books for Scientists and Their Loved Ones
What books do you think every scientist should read? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.
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Is this written by a Biologist?
“The Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin
“Systematics and the Origin of Species” by Ernst Mayr
Sure, you will go over much of this in textbook and lecture, but no reason you can’t start earlier. And, Darwin is a great writer too.
Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The emperor of all maladies and gene: an intimate history
The selfish gene – for any one who is a scientist or aspiring to be one
I would definitely add “The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks” By Rebecca Skloot. It’s an incredible story of the origin and development of the HeLa cell line, and the painful history of the Lacks family. Beautifully written, it’s an emotional journey that starts with a poor woman with cervical cancer, and delves into her history, family, and undying legacy.