This is a collection of essays by Max Perutz, a nobel prize winning crystallographer. My expectations were high as I previously enjoyed essay collections by other scientists such as Dawkins, Sagan or Weinberg . And I was not disappointed, this is a most splendid book. (disclaimer: as I would not mind being a macromolecular crystallographer myself, I am surely biased.)
The subtitle of the book is “Essays on Science, Scientists, and Humanity” and the first chapter is a case in point: Fritz Haber. This extremely talented and dedicated chemist was essential in the development of both synthetic fertilizer and the poisons gases of world war one. From feeding the world to chemical warfare. Let’s add that Haber also had a hand in the development of agricultural pesticides that were later used against his fellow Jews, although he never knew about that: he had to flee Germany in 1933 and died a year later. Haber, friend or foe? Another essay in the same broad category is the one about Andrei Sakharov: from nuclear weapons design to human rights and once more there is no easy answer, friend or foe?
You should not get the impression that Perutz recast all problems as eternal questions, never to be answered, only to be deconstructed and given a new contextual interpretation. All this is clear from a scathing review of a book about Louis Pasteur (lets not honour that book with an URL!).
Some scientists of rather unpleasant character make an appearance, such as the brilliant but lazy Leo Szilard who is also a main character in “The making of the atomic bomb” a superb book by Richard Rhodes. The story of the flamboyant Szent-Gyorgyri, of vitamine C fame, is also instructing: great discoveries and courageous political actions do not immunize against subsequent megalomania.
Some people deserve more widespread recognition and I learned a lot about Jacques Monod. I should read his autobiography and most certainly will read his most famous book.
This book contains a lucid description of the discovery of ‘first’ secret of live, the DNA double-helix by Watson and Crick. Perutz worked in the same lab and he lucidly delineates the complementarily of Watson and Crick. This essay alone justifies buying this book, and it is an essential add-on to story as told by Watson himself in his most readable Double Helix.
Who else makes an appearance? Lise Meitner, Dorothy Hodgkin, Linus Pauling, Werner Heisenberg, and Peter Medawar. But also, unknown to me, I am ashamed to admit, Gerhard Domagk who developed Pronstosil, the first sulphonamide antibiotic.
All elements of the books subtitle have an autobiographical component: Perutz as an enemy alien deported from Britain in the beginning of ww2, the anger of finding out about the alpha-helical model by Pauling ad Corey, and the subtleties of the Hemoglobin protein structure, the work that earned him a nobel prize (the second secret of life).
This is not all, there are more treasures in this book, hurry… before it is out of print. In the mean time you can learn something from listening to an interview with Perutz by clicking here.