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.
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.
Some encounters change the course of your life. For young American Peace Corps volunteer Jonathan C. Slaght, it was a chance sighting of a rare owl in the Russian Far East that turned him onto the path of wildlife conservation. Hidden behind the conservation plans and the data there are amazing personal stories that are not often told. Owls of the Eastern Ice is a spellbinding memoir of determination and obsession with safeguarding the future of this bird of prey that firmly hooked its talons in me and did not let go.
This book was originally announced with the subtitle Every Body Leaves a Mark. Next to a clever play on words, it also nicely captures the subject. Patricia Wiltshire is a professor in forensic ecology, botany, and palynology. That last discipline is the study of pollen and spores and is widely used in archaeology, for example for radiocarbon dating. Wiltshire used to be an environmental archaeologist before stumbling into a new career in her fifties when a phone call heralded an unexpected career change. Traces tells that story and is a fascinating first-hand account of her pioneering contributions to forensic science.
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.
DNA has lodged itself in the public imagination as the “blueprint” of life and as other, often slightly deceiving, metaphors. But what happens next? How do organisms actually get anything done with the information coded in DNA? For biologists, this is standard textbook fare: DNA is copied into single-stranded RNA which is then translated, three letters at a time, into amino acids that, when strung together, make up the workhorses of the cell: proteins. The cell organ, or organelle, that does the latter part is the ribosome, which Venki Ramakrishnan introduces here in Gene Machine. He has written a riveting first-hand account of the academic race to describe its structure, and how, in the process, he bagged a shared Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009.