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Science Books

June 29, 2006

Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code (Eminent Lives series)
Matt Ridley (2006)
ISBN: 006082333X

We barely need reminding of Francis Crick's legacy to biological science, but science writer Matt Ridley's (The Agile Gene: How Nature Turns on Nurture, was awarded best science book of 2003 from the National Academies of Science) sparkling expose of the modest genius is a welcome addition to the Eminent Lives series. Crick's early middle-class life and unremarkable academic record gave no indication of the intellectual leap he would make during his early 30s. Along with James Watson, Crick rose to prominence after discovering the structure of DNA in 1953, and is destined to be remembered alongside other science heavyweights such as Galileo, Darwin, and Einstein. Ridley's own immense knowledge of molecular biology leads him into a secondary, yet equally important, area of discovery not often covered; DNA's basic coding scheme. Ridley expresses with urgency the frustrations felt by other prominent scientists of the day trying to make this very same discovery, only to be continually confronted by dead ends. Crick died only recently in 2004, and will be sorely missed by the science community, and perhaps none more so than by Watson, who considers Ridley's book a worthy testament to a vital and significant life. "Matt Ridley's Francis Crick perceptively and warmly recounts the extraordinary life of the twentieth century's most important biologist," says Watson. Ridley recounts how Crick and Watson spent nearly every waking hour talking shop, no matter where they were, a passion that was no doubt key to their success. Unlike Watson's thrilling roller coaster account of the pair's discovery that is Double Helix, Ridley presents the tale in a traditional and removed manner. It really comes down to a matter of taste, with some preferring the latter's more straightforward approach.

The Change Function: Why Some Technologies Take Off and Others Crash and Burn
Pip Coburn (2006)
ISBN: 1591841321

We've probably all had a wander through second-hand shops and garage sales filled with cryptic bits of technology; once important looking bits of equipment found unceremoniously stuffed into a cardboard box, strangled by their own power cords. Sometimes it's hard to even tell what it is that we are looking at - a telephone handset here, a video screen there - yet at some stage during their lives these odd bits of electronics wizardry were thought to be a shortcut to a new age of human happiness. So what happened? Using his many years of experience as a technology strategist for UBS Investment Research, Pip Coburn thinks he knows why some technologies go on to become indispensable tools of industry and the home - making zillions of dollars for inventors and investors - while others fall hopelessly by the wayside. It all comes down to a simple equation, apparently, that says the willingness of the public to adopt new technologies will only occur when a new technology will improve their current technological situation with a minimum of headaches. Hence, the "change function." And let's face it, we've all been there; it's not easy to start learning the ins and outs of a new-fangled piece of electronics that comes with a handbook the size of your telephone directory. Coburn knows what he's talking about, too, as his eccentric columns - often quoting HAL9000, Machiavelli, Anaïs Nin and Einstein - in the Wall Street Journal have shown over the years. The Change Function is a witty and intelligent book guaranteed to enthrall and entrance any techno-boffin or potential technology investor.

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