Saturday, July 10, 2010

Books on becoming... (Books - Microcosm by Carl Zimmer, The Statue Within by Francois Jacob, & Little Monsters by Charles Lambert)

Crazy week. I've been writing a paper in the lab (which means a lot of work-related reading), and it has been hot enough here in New York City to fry an egg on my face. I have read for fun here and there, on my commute and before I go to sleep, but not enough to finish anything. Here's what's at the top of the pile at bookeywookey:

Carl Zimmer writes eloquently in Microcosm of the biology, particularly the evolution, genetics, and the experimental manipulations applied to the single-cell microbe E. coli and what we can learn about our own species by studying it.
The threats faced by a starving E. coli are much like the ones our own cells face as we get old. Aging human cells suffer the same sorts of damage to their genes and ribosomes. People who suffer Alzheimer's disease develop tangles of misshapen protein in their brain - proteins that are deformed in much the same way some proteins in starving E. coli are deformed. Life not only grows and reproduces. It also decays.
Zimmer's writes writes a different kind of popular science book than many of those that gain popularity today. He fashions an elegant narrative line while not holding the reader's hand. If his story includes the role of the ribosome in protein synthesis or the notion of a genetic switch and you don't know what that means, he expects you to look it up. He also doesn't adhere to the scientific paper model of writing - say what you're going to do, do it, and then say what you have done - I appreciate this because it affords his narrative less excess verbiage and a greater sense of flow.

I've particularly enjoyed learning about the ways in which E. coli fashioned of identical DNA in the identical environment develop individual differences. Zimmer also makes the important point that it is E. coli that has allowed us to study the process of evolution directly. To see it before our eyes and collect evidence for it. We don't live tens of thousands of years and were not around for the entire process described by Darwin and his scientific descendants, and so we have relied on the evidence left behind in fossils. However, in an average month E. coli will produce more than 500 generations. We can see them reproduce, replicate their DNA, produce random mutations, and generate more of those mutations over time that favors their more effective survival in that environment, and this can happen on the scale of years rather than millennia.

Biologist Francois Jacob was one of the team who uncovered the mechanism by which genes regulate the production of proteins by studying E. coli. He trained as a doctor, fighting in the free French forces against the Germans in Africa in World War II. The serious injuries he sustained prevented him from work as a surgeon and so he ended up a microbiologist, eventually winning a Nobel Prize for his work. The Statue Within is his elegant philosophical memoir.
My obsession: a life that shrivels up, slowly rots, goes soft as a pulp. This worry about decline grabs me by the throat as I awake. In the brief interval between dream and waking, it flaunts before my eyes the frenzied dance of everything I would have liked to do, and did not do, and never will. As I turn over and over in my bed, the fear of the too-late, of the irreversible, propels me to the mirror to shave and get ready for the day. And that is the moment of truth. The moment for the old questions. What am I today? Am I capable of renewal? What are the chances I might still produce something I do not expect of myself? For my life unfolds mainly in the yet-to-come, and is based on waiting. Mine is a life of preparation. I enjoy the present only insofar as it is a promise of the future... Starting to work in Andre Lwoff's laboratory at the Pasteur Institute, I found myself in an unfamiliar universe of limitless imagination and endless criticism. The game was that of continually inventing a possible world, or a piece of a possible world, and then of comparing it with the real world. Doing experiments was to give free rein to every idea that crossed my mind...What mattered more than the answers were the questions and how they were formulated; for in the best of cases, the answer led to new questions. It was a system for concocting expectation; a machine for making the future. For me, this world of questions and the provisional, this chase after an answer that was always put off to the next day, all that was euphoric. I lived in the future. I always waited for the result of tomorrow. I had turned my anxiety into my profession.
Isn't that gorgeous? Old fashioned perhaps, the prose is purpler than what we would expect in a scientist's memoir today (or any memoir), but what passion and drive he conveys.

Another elegant and thoughtful wordsmith is atop the bedside pile. I wrote last week of Charles Lambert's most recent book Any Human Face, a thrillerish love story with serious moral underpinnings. That led me to finally read his first novel, Little Monsters, which I have owned for a year or more. I have quickly gotten half way into this fictional memoir of a somewhat cruel and isolating childhood. It was obvious to me upon picking up this book that I had never even read the opening paragraph:
When I was thirteen, my father killed my mother. Three days after that, I was taken away from the hospital by two people I had never seen before and would never see again, a man and a woman who used my name each time they spoke to me - Are you warm enough, Carol? Have you got your case, Carol? Carol, come along with us now - as if they knew me, although they didn't tell me their names. I must have shown willing somehow. I expect I nodded and did what I was told. I was put into a car that smelt new and then, when I was sitting alone in the back, they told me I was going to stay with Aunt Margot, who ran a pub called the Mermaid. I supposed I'd known that I wouldn't be taken home, but I was still surprised, and shocked, as I would have been no matter what the destination. They spoke about my aunt as though I was supposed to know all about her. They laughed when the man said I'd be able to get tipsy for nothing. That was the joy, he said, of living in a pub.
Well, he certainly knows how to get one's attention. I would have kept going had I read that paragraph before. The novel evokes for me themes of memory, loss, rescue, and what propels one to become the kind of adult they become. I am excited to read on.


Sheila O'Malley said...

"I had turned my anxiety into a profession."


Ted said...

Yes, isn't that a remarkable observation.