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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.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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