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Science Books

September 6, 2007

Avoid Boring People: Lessons From A Life In Science
James D. Watson (2007)

As we discovered in his book The Double Helix, Nobel Prize winner James D. Watson - immortalized for his part in revealing the structure of DNA - is a colorful, larger than life character. Surprisingly, the science in Watson's Double Helix is almost, if not entirely, overshadowed by the wheeling and dealing of his ambitious scientific peers - which is exactly what makes it such a rollickingly good read. Now, unencumbered by political correctness, and wielding an innate sense of candor, Watson again pries open the inner workings of scientific research - this time for the benefit of neophyte scientists. Avoid Boring People is both the product of an exemplary scientific career and an exceptional life, and the gems of wisdom that Watson imparts will surely fast-track any young scientist's ambitions. Watson's advice is the type that you'd expect from a man who "discovered the secret of life"; the kinds of things that you'd change if you could live your life over again. From the general to the specific, the conventional to the obscure, Watson's precepts are wide-ranging. He tells budding scientists never to outshine their elders, to accept funding rejection gracefully, to never dye their hair, and, most importantly, avoid boring people at all costs. Whether you soak up Watson's advice like a sponge, or just come along for a very insightful, and slightly eccentric, ride, Avoid Boring People is another feather in Watson's well-plumed cap.

The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery
D. T. Max (2007)
ISBN: 081297252X

If you find it a bit troublesome to catch some zzzs now and then, spare a sympathetic thought for a family who has been subject to fatal familial insomnia for the last 200 years. When this frightening, heritable disease finally gets a foothold in middle age, it robs them of precious sleep, eats holes in their brain, and finally finishes them off some months down the track. Max, The New York Observer, The New York Times Magazine, and The Wall Street Journal, has chosen his scientific case studies well for The Family That Couldn't Sleep. Like rubberneckers gawping at the twisted, smoldering remains of an auto-wreck, the stories comprising this gripping collection are indeed macabre, yet surreal enough to engage your full attention. There's the primitive Papua New Guinean tribe that is nearly wiped out due to a disease whose primary symptom is fits of uncontrollable laughter, and the thousands of deer in the American West that mysteriously die in fields lush with grass. Other equally distressing stories include cows attacking their owners in milking stables, and sheep that rub their fleeces raw before dying. But there is much more to Max's collection of strange and perplexing tales than a desire to shock and baffle his readers, even though his further findings are no less confronting. Max has found that there is a common cause that links together all of these grisly conditions: prions. Prions are common proteins that occasionally go bad, which subsequently leads to a host of neurological disorders, and inevitable death. The problem with prions, says Max, is that they are almost impossible to kill; they are not alive, and are not comprised of DNA. But Max - who happens to suffer from an inherited neurological illness - provides hope where there seems to be none, and details with optimism the history of prion research up to the present day. The fact that Max ultimately discovers that we may only have ourselves to blame is, perhaps, just as shocking as the diseases themselves.

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