Skip to main content

A History of Molecular Biology – Michael Morange ***

Michel Morange’s efforts in the history of molecular biology come to life in his appropriately named book, The History of Molecular Biology. While we take for granted now that DNA is the genetic material, this conclusion stemmed from many experiments and this is where the book starts. We all know the progress made since then with things like cloning and DNA amplification (polymerase chain reaction). Michel Morange guides us on a historical trip through these developments and even takes a look into the future. The book is not organized in a traditional chronological order. Rather it is divided into themes such as “The chemical nature of the gene” or “Deciphering the genetic code”. Within each theme, however, the events are outlined in chronological order.
The strongest point of the book was to put the development of molecular biology into context. It provided an eye-opening view of the competition between various schools of thought and controversies about the discoveries. Its major weakness is the lack of biographical material about the individual scientists, who I am sure were interesting people in their own rights. Another weakness is that the book was originally written in French and was translated by Matthew Cobb. I found that the translation was incomplete in that some of the French sentence structure remained, surprising since Cobb himself seems to be a very good writer and the author of delightful The Egg and Sperm Race.
Overall this book was very interesting and fun to read. I recommend it thoroughly to those unfamiliar with molecular biology, although this type of reader may have to do some research to clarify some of the concepts. I even more strongly recommend it to people who are familiar with molecular biology but who have not kept up. The book provides an excellent review of the material with the addition of the competitive context of the times.

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Stephen Goldberg


Popular posts from this blog

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under