biography

Book review – A Curious Boy: The Making of a Scientist

7-minute read

If you asked ten scientists what made them choose their profession, would you get ten different answers? My instinct tells me that curiosity is an overriding factor for many. It certainly was for palaeontologist Richard Fortey. Published just days after his 75th birthday, A Curious Boy reflects on his earliest years and was such a disarming and enjoyable memoir that I finished it in a single day.

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Book review – A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J. B. S. Haldane

7-minute read

Students of genetics and evolution might be familiar with the name of J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964), particularly for his contributions to population genetics. What I did not realise before reading A Dominant Character was that he had many more strings to his bow and was a larger-than-life character. In a fascinating biography that never seeks to downplay his complicated character, journalist Samanth Subramanian effortlessly switches back and forth between Haldane’s personal life and his many scientific contributions.

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Book review – Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life

7-minute read

Two things, or so the joke goes, are sure in life: death and taxes. Entropy, that existential bummer*, is another candidate for that list. Why Fish Don’t Exist sees science reporter Lulu Miller grapple with the question of how to find meaning in a world where “there is no escaping the Second Law of Thermodynamics” (p. 3), to quote her biochemist father. She does so by examining the life of fish taxonomist David Starr Jordan who saw his life’s work destroyed – twice – and responded by rebuilding it bigger and better. But is Jordan a suitable role model? In vivid prose that jumps off the page, Miller attempts to come to terms with his complex character, tracing the heights to which confidence can lift you, but also the depths to which it can plunge you.

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Book review – Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet

6-minute read

Thomas Robert Malthus, a man so praised and vilified that his name has been immortalised in the noun “Malthusianism”. Many people will have heard of him in the context of overpopulation, but how many of you know the title of his famous book? Robert J. Mayhew is a Professor of Historical Geography and Intellectual History and with Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet he makes the case that Malthus’s book is a good example of the unread classic. Deeply researched, this is a scholarly book for the patient reader that charts Malthus’s life and, especially, his intellectual legacy. As Mayhew shows, Malthus remains as relevant as ever, though he continues to be misinterpreted in manifold ways.

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Book review – Unravelling the Double Helix: The Lost Heroes of DNA

Most people will at least be mildly familiar with the story of how the structure of DNA was discovered. Francis Crick and James D. Watson are household names in this story as they went on to win a Nobel Prize. But can you name the third person to share it with them? Most people will also have heard of Rosalind Franklin, but as Gareth Williams shows, so many other people were relevant to this story. Watson and Crick only put the finishing cherry on the cake. Unravelling the Double Helix covers the preceding 85 years of breakthroughs, blind alleys, near-misses, and “beautifully executed bellyflops” by some of the greatest scientists of their time.

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Book review – Curators: Behind the Scenes of Natural History Museums

One fond memory I have of studying biology at Leiden University in the Netherlands was a behind-the-scenes tour for first-year students at the then brand new location of Naturalis Biodiversity Center. This included a tour of the main tower housing the scientific collection normally off-limits to the general public. This is the domain of the museum curator, but their work involves much more than spending time amidst storage cabinets. To get a good idea just how diverse this job is, look no further than this lively and beautifully presented memoir. Here, Lance Grande tells of his career of more than thirty years as a curator at the Field Museum in Chicago.

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Book review – King of the Dinosaur Hunters: The Life of John Bell Hatcher and the Discoveries that Shaped Paleontology

When I think of turn-of-the-20th-century palaeontology, names such as Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope are the first to come to mind. Their infamous rivalry, known as the Bone Wars, relied heavily on field collectors who did the back-breaking labour of prospecting and quarrying for fossils. Most of these bone hunters are barely remembered, and John Bell Hatcher might very well have remained thus. This meticulous biography by American palaeontologist Lowell Dingus saves Hatcher from obscurity and documents both his hugely successful work as a bone hunter, as well as his later stellar but tragically short-lived career as a curator.

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Book review – The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life

After I recently finished Carl Zimmer’s new book She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity, I noticed there was one mechanism of heredity he mentioned only ever so briefly: horizontal gene transfer. Since it does not play a large role in humans, it is understandable he left it aside. And doing it justice would have required almost another book. Luckily, science writer David Quammen is here to give us that book.

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Book review – The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Conflicting Visions of the Future of Our Planet

If I asked you to propose solutions to some of the world’s problems and future challenges, things such as overpopulation, food production, hunger, soil erosion, resource depletion, energy production etc., what ideas would you put forth? Most likely, your proposals would build on the intellectual legacy of two men you have never heard of. Allow American journalist and writer Charles C. Mann to introduce you to ecologist William Vogt, father of the environmental movement, and Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning plant breeder Norman Borlaug, instigator of the agricultural Green Revolution.

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