Skip to main content

Max Perutz and the Secret of Life – Georgina Ferry *****

There are some books that, when they arrive on the reviewing shelf, tend to get pushed to one side because, frankly, they don’t seem very interesting. After a spate of DNA-related titles, it was very easy to think ‘oh, yes, another molecular biologist, but they’ve done the famous ones and now they’re scraping the barrel.’ I don’t mean that in any way disrespectfully of Perutz – he was, after all, a Nobel prize winner – but there are plenty of Nobel laureates out there and they certainly aren’t all in the Feynman class when it comes to science-changing achievements or having an interesting life. However, in this reaction I was reckoning without two things – there was more to Max Perutz than meets the eye, and Georgina Ferry does a riveting job, producing a biography that is a joy to read.
It’s hard not to like Perutz if you’re British – because we all love people who come from another country but prefer ours – and this is doubly amazing considering the way he was treated during the Second World War, when as an enemy alien he was imprisoned and packed off to Canada (nothing against Canada, it was just not where he wanted to be, especially in a prison camp). Although he had his failings, he comes across as a likeable person without the ego problems that some Nobel prize winners have suffered from.
One of the strengths of Ferry’s book is the way that she doesn’t whitewash over Perutz’s failings – in fact he could be quite obtuse, and is never portrayed in the sort of quixotic genius mode we are used to with the Nobel greats, but rather as a systematic (you might even say plodding) but tenacious follower of his lines of inquiry. Once he goes off the rails in a fairly big way in pursuing those who disagree with him, but you never lose sympathy with Perutz as a character.
The other strength of this book is that though there is enough of his sometimes abstruse branch of science, concentrating on haemoglobin and aspects of protein structure for most of his working life to get a good understanding of what his work was about, Ferry never makes it obscure, always keeping the subject approachable to the non-biologist. Fascinating also for its description of the life of a top scientific laboratory from the 30s onwards, including a touch of the politics involved, and some larger than life characters, this is one of 2007’s better surprise finds.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

Meet Your Bacteria - Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock ***

There have been a good number of books on our microbiome - the bacteria and other tiny organisms living in our body - from The Wild Life of Our Bodies throughI, Superorganism to I Contain Multitudes. Each of these is a traditional popular science book format, and all, to some degree, suffer from the same problem - in part, they have a tendency to present collections of facts, little more than bullet points of information strung together, rather than providing an effective narrative. As Meet Your Bacteria is in a significantly different format, there was a chance to imbue the subject with more dynamism and interest.'

When I first looked at the book, I assumed from its shape and cover that it would be in the style of highly illustrated, two-page spreads with large illustrations and the text little more than captions. In reality, Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock manage to subvert that format - it is, indeed, presented as a series of separate two-page spreads, but there is far more…