Learning about Biology

I’ve always been curious about biology, genetics, evolution, biochemistry — the “life sciences” — but I believed the field was so large and complex that I could not hope to understand it.

When I was asked to chair the Campaign Council for the Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington in the fall of 2015, the need to learn more about proteins drove me forward. I am still a novice life scientist, but I am an eager student.

I have found the following materials useful in my quest toward understanding:

  • The Biology Book: From the Origin of Life to Epigenetics, 250 Milestones in the History of Biology, 2015, Michael C. Gerald and Gloria E. Gerald.
    I found this book on the shelves at Barnes & Noble near SeaTac airport in 2016, when I had a few hours waiting for my wife’s flight to land. The authors picked what they felt were the 250 most significant milestones in biological discovery, and each one gets a page of text and a page with some images/charts. It is a whirlwind tour, but really gives you a sweeping overview of biology. What is most fascinating to me is the seemingly random way that particular discoveries were made.
  • The Discovery of Insulin, 2007, Michael Bliss. This 25th anniversary update to the original 1982 edition is a meticulously researched account of the 1922-1923 work that led to the purification of insulin for use in treating diabetes in human beings. Bliss interviewed two adults who were administered some of the first injections of insulin in 1923 as teenagers, and were still alive almost 60 years later. A case study in the scientific method, complete with egos, credit, Noble prizes, and petty infighting.
  • The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary edition, 2006, Richard Dawkins.
    Dawkins published the original edition of The Selfish Gene in 1976, and this is his 2006 update. I read the 30th anniversary edition in early 2016 (likely just missing the release of the 40th Anniversary edition). Dawkins chose to do almost no editing of the original text, but added extensive footnotes to update the book with our current best understanding. Game Theory (prisoner’s dilemma, etc.) was a fairly new academic area in 1976, but he grasped the way in which game theory informs evolution. The idea of an “Evolutionary Stable Strategy” when it comes to male and female mating strategies is particular striking. And Dawkins coined the term “meme” as the analog of the gene when it comes to human ideas.
  • Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on Earth, 2015, Juan Enríquez and Steve Gullans. Written by two biotech executive/investors, this book is a quick stroll through our current understanding of genetics and the future paths humanity will likely follow. The authors emphasize repeatedly that human beings have been manipulating genes for tens of thousands of years, albeit with clumsy interbreeding techniques. Our technology for gene manipulation has improved dramatically in the past few dozen years. My friend Dr. Jim Olson gave me this book, and I had dinner with Steve Gullans in Cambridge, MA, in late 2016.
  • At the end of July, 2019, the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group hosted 2 days of presentations on Predicting Biology. 19 speakers across the topics of Cell Biology, Immunology, and Neuroscience had 20 minutes each to present their research findings. Each researcher was combining big data, machine learning, and “wet lab” experiments to advance their understanding of cells, immunology, and neuroscience. The link above has the agenda, speaker bios, and a link to videos of the presentations.
  • The Scientific Imagination: With a New Introduction, 1998, Gerald Holton. Originally published in 1978, I read this 1998 update. Fair Warning: this book is a slog! He uses long, complex sentences and many big and obscure words. But, for all that, it is an important book for understanding (scientific) discovery. Holton is a science historian at Harvard (still alive at 97 as I write this, born in Berlin in 1922, BA 1948 Harvard, and more), and he spent a lot of time examining the papers of Einstein, Millikan (oil drop => electron), and others. He explains in a convincing way that while a single individual gets the credit (and Noble prize) for a key scientific advance, the ideas are floating around in the ether, and some other person could have as easily been first (though Einstein might be an exception).
  • A few papers on biology in my DropBox. See especially “Can a biologist fix a radio” (2002), “Could a neuroscientist understand a microprocessor” (2016), and “On the impossibility of being expert” (2010).
  • The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, 2010, Siddhartha Mukherjee.
    I just finished reading this book in October, 2019. It won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. Mukherjee was a cancer doctor and researcher when he began writing this book. He identifies the earliest historical reports of what we know call cancer (Persia ca. 500BC), the various theories and treatments (most very brutal), and our current understanding of causes and (potential) cures. I found the prose at times a bit too florid, but he interleaves stories of his own cancer patients and the advances and setbacks in research and treatment. If nothing else, you will be left with a very vivid understanding of how much trial-and-error still goes on today in the practice of medicine.
  • The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, 1968, James D. Watson.
    I read a 1998 reprint edition of this book in 2014. In general, I found the book unsatisfying, because Watson never explained in sufficient detail (at least to my satisfaction) what the key advances were that lead to the “aha!” moment for him and Crick. The most lasting impression I have from this book is the tremendous egos involved and the striving for credit. A recurring theme in every single science/history book I have read. Watson was only 25 years old in 1953 (Crick was 37, died in 2004), and Watson is only 91 years old today.
  • What is Life?, 1944, Erwin Schrödinger. I read the 2012 edition of this book in 2014. But I cannot say that I fully understood the book! Schrödinger won the Nobel Prize in Physic in 1933 for his work in quantum mechanics. As WWII was winding down, he applied his brain to biology, and especially the question of genes. His prose is difficult to grasp: whether because his native language was German or because of his decades of work in physics, I cannot say. But I explored ideas about how physics could explain life, and many of his observations/predictions were proved accurate with the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 by Watson & Crick.
  • My 4/20/2015 Letter to the Editor of the Wall Street Journal: You Cannot ‘Pause’ Evolution. Two Nobel laureates expressed their opinion that humanity should not pursue gene technology capable of making changes that are heritable by generations to come. I chided them in my letter for their ignorance of human nature and history.

I could add more materials, but I’m going to stop for now.

If you have a book, paper, or video you think I should add to this list, please do post suggestions below!

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