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Max Perutz And The Secret Of Life Paperback – 5 Jun 2008
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"Engrossing... At a time when British citizenship is being debated, we would do well to remember the case of Max Perutz along with the many other immigrants who transfused the intellectual life-blood of this country in the postwar years" -- Giles Foden Guardian "Ferry has captured her subject's genial, uncompetitive personality well" -- Brenda Maddox Literary Review "I loved it. As a scientist, reading this well-written biography of a great researcher was a treat... Max Perutz was a great man and a great researcher, and here he has received the biography he deserves" Sunday Telegraph "Elegant, adroit biography...delightful" Observer "Georgina Ferry's biography captures not only the scientific advances made by Perutz but also his curious personal qualities" Economist
The extraordinary story of the father of molecular biology, whose famous research team uncovered the structure of DNA.
'One of the twentieth century's greatest scientific minds'
Matt Ridley, author of Genome.
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All this makes for an exciting story, even though the protagonist is anything but a glittering star. Perutz was a very patient and persistent "plodder" who, while eager for success and recognition, was never seen as a genius and never had the over-sized ego that often comes with such a label. The persistent plodding won him the haemoglobin structure and the Nobel prize, while his modesty allowed him to quietly run a world-leading institute where he had to handle primadonnas like Francis Crick.
Obviously, the book is a must for anybody interested in proteins. For everybody else, I was worried a bit that it might turn out a bit boring as I knew that Max was a less than glittering person. But I think the author has managed the trick to turn his plodding life into a compelling story, which should be interesting for non-specialist readers as well. The main lesson for the general public is, of course, that one doesn't have to be a towering genius of stature of a Crick or Bernal in order to be a successful scientist. Relatively ordinary people can make an impact too.
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When he was 22 in 1936, Perutz and his family left his native Austria, but in Cambridge during the war he was arrested and shipped with Nazis to Canada merely because of his national origin. His work resumed upon his release and oath of allegiance to the King. It was ever after would based on x-ray crystallography, a field drawing from mathematics, chemistry, biology, and physics. The crystals Perutz used were not geologic samples, but crystallized versions of proteins, and he latched on to hemoglobin because it really was involved in the secrets of life; it was known that it carried oxygen throughout the body (he called it the "molecular lung"), but no one knew how it did so. Over decades of research he showed not only the structure, but how it flexed and turned in order to take on oxygen or give it off. Perutz was not the sort of brilliant scientist who had flashes of eureka moments. He got to his lab and worked hard until answers came. His answers were often wrong, shot down by others, and it is perhaps because he understood the nature of scientific research as a group endeavor that Perutz was brilliant in organizing others. He established the research unit in which Watson and Crick found DNA's structure, and as chairman of the Laboratory for Molecular Biology, he fostered an environment that on its own has produced more Nobel prizes than many developed countries.
Perutz had more than his share of foibles. He had a passion for climbing mountains and skiing that could eclipse his interest in research or even in his family. Nonetheless, he was sickly most of his life, and had a peculiar diet that required him to eat bananas that had ripened to black. He had a naïve belief that scientific reasoning would overcome the flaws within politics and religion. His life as Ferry tells it, however, is full of wonderful lessons, like the one that a good brain is a boon, but hard work and perseverance are what make success. Another one is that scientific researchers work best in a chaotic environment with only partial controls upon it. Another one is that the best way to understand any physical object is to understand its internal structure. And finally, a maxim that was one of Perutz's favorites, "In science, truth always wins." Perutz left a legacy of his own research, and more importantly of effective organization of scientific teams, that will continue to foster the scientific victories he knew were coming.
The time was one of those periods in history when great things are happening every month and it is only in retrospect that one realizes what a citadel of learning this was. Max, who insisted that all members of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology use each others first names, founded the discipline of molecular biology. From his lab came Watson and Crick, Fred Sanger who discovered the restriction enzymes that led to everything that happened, and five other Nobel Prize winners. The author is an excellent science writer who does a good job with explanations that may be difficult for those with no science background. In fact, little science knowledge is necessary to appreciate this wonderful man's life and work. This is an excellent book.