The Eighth Day of Creation

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Judson’s book is surely monumental. Claiming to be a rather extensive popular scientific history of three decades of progress in molecular biology, it is successful. The book has three major units—one each on DNA, RNA, and protein. These substances are large macromolecules found in the cells of living organisms: they are intimately and essentially involved in biological function. Judson sees correctly that an important part of the recent revolution in biology is the successive refinement to smaller and smaller levels where function is related specifically to structure. The three major units of Judson’s book illuminate the diverse strands of differing lines of research; at least five different scientific disciplines were involved in the attainment of our present understanding—physical chemistry, crystallography, genetics, microbiology, and biochemistry. Thus, things that were obvious to a person coming from one disciplinary perspective were not so to another. An example would be the approach of George Gamov, who came from physics to molecular biology, and whose papers, while erratically brilliant, were seen to be fundamentally wrong in their basics by the dean of theoretical molecular biologists, Francis Crick. Time and again Judson illustrates the importance of the interdisciplinary perspective and how the narrowly disciplinary approach actually is obstructive.

Judson’s book does not cover only the scientific side of the development of molecular biology, however; it would probably have been dull reading indeed had he done no more than recount which discoveries and break-throughs came when. Instead, Judson deals with the associated human drama as well. Thus we learn of the frustration of blind alleys, disputes of scientific priority, ingenious and exhilarating experiments, failures of nerve and imagination, ethical questions, serendipity, tragedy (Rosalind Franklin), comedy (James Watson being made the butt of a joke), jealousy, pettiness, and glory. Even if one were totally uninterested in the science in Judson’s book, he could still enjoy the human story while skipping over the more technical scientific language (although Judson has done an excellent job of explaining some very difficult science).

In preparing this fairly fine-print, 686-page work, the author contacted, recontacted, and followed up on interviews which, in most cases, he tape recorded. In fact, long entries in his text consist of transcriptions from these tapes (sometimes the entries are too lengthy). All in all, Judson interviewed about 130 persons, and from the roughly three dozen major figures, he gained repeated interviews sometimes after intervals of years.

Some of the actors in the molecular biology story have seen their names come close to becoming household words despite the complexity of their theories and subject matter—James Watson, Francis Crick, and Linus Pauling, for example. Others are less familiar, if familiar at all to the general reader (and perhaps even to some younger contemporary researchers in molecular biology). Such others, and some of them are Nobel laureates as are Watson and Crick, are Monod, Jacob, Perutz, Franklin all of whom it would be tedious to list here. All of these persons made necessary if not sufficient contributions to our current understanding of how events run their courses on the level of the very small in living beings—in other words, of the molecular interactions among nucleic acids and proteins. What was discovered through the labor and thought of these investigators was that coded “information” is to be found in specifically determined form in DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) arranged as constituents of chromosomes in the nuclei of cells. RNA (ribonucleic acid) “reads off” or transcribes this information and transfers it to specialized organelles (ribosomes) outside of the cell nucleus where the “information” is translated in the manufacture of proteins. The proteins thus formed carry out myriad functions in the cell, including catalytic...

(The entire section is 1649 words.)