The Opposing Thumb

An opinionated digit leafs through the biological literature
Media Roundup

Books For the Summer: The Eighth Day of Creation

Summer is here and everybody from the New York Times to Hustler is duly publishing recommended reads (i.e. “10 great summer reads”; “5 books for the beach” and Hustler’s ever popular “12 Books to Read Wrapped in Another Book’s Dustcover”).  Let’s start with an absolute classic, Horace Freeland Judson’s “The Eighth Day of Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Biology”.

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Horace Judson (1931-2011) did not come from a science, or even a history, background. The definitive history of the molecular biology revolution is the work of a journalist- its main method is the interview (with more than 100 scientists), backed up by documentation. Judson recognized the importance of the science being produced in the 1960s, and seized the clear opportunity for a talented writer: “in an era in which more than half the scientists who have ever lived are still alive, I am repeatedly surprised to find that historians of science are reluctant to attempt interviews or rely on them.”

Judson entered the University of Chicago at 15 and graduated at 17, and according to his daughter he got “a complete education. GIs coming back from the war were also attending. Some of these much older men taught him to smoke, drink bourbon and play poker, and introduced him to women.” After a series of odd jobs, he landed the position of arts & science correspondent in Europe for Time magazine. Judson interviewed John Lennon and Samuel Beckett, among others, and had a brief instant of fame as the foil for a Bob Dylan tirade against the squaredom of Time. You can watch him being badgered by Dylan while covering the singer’s 1965 tour (Judson dismissed the rant as “contrived”*, you can judge for yourself at the link below).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mnl5X5MQKTg

During his time in London, Judson met and befriended biochemist Max Perutz (who inaugurated the field of structural biology of complex biological molecules with his detailed studies of hemoglobin). Fascinated by the amazing progress in biology, Judson took on the relatively modest task of writing a small book on cellular macromolecules. A full decade and hundreds of interview hours later, having quit his job at Time to dedicate himself to it, Judson completed The Eighth Day of Creation. It was worth the effort. The book managed to please both scientists and journalists, many of whom still refer to it as the best popular science book- certainly the best popular account of the birth of the discipline we now call molecular biology. The books takes us from Oswald Avery and his group’s demonstration that the gene was made of DNA to James Watson and Francis Crick’s double helix model. It takes us through Matthew Meselson and Franklin Stahl’s experiments on the mechanisms by which DNA is copied (a perennial candidate for the title of most beautiful experiment in biology), and many other great moments. But more than a compendium of results and interpretations, The Eighth Day of Creation shows the reader how science is done, what motivates the people who do it, and how they perceive their achievements and those of their peers.

“It stands entirely by itself,” said the molecular biologist Matthew Meselson, who is prominent in its pages. “If he had not written it, there never would have been an account of the DNA revolution equal to its importance, that captures what really went on.”

Originally published in 1979,  The Eighth Day of Creation was recently reprinted by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, with a foreword by his daughter, author Olivia Judson (who also wrote a touching series on her father and their Baltimore family home in the NYT this year).

* HFJ got his own licks in: “That evening”, says Judson, “I went to the concert. My opinion then and now was that the music was unpleasant, the lyrics inflated, and Dylan, a self-indulgent whining show off”.

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