The Chemical Educator, Vol. 5, No. 3, S1430-4171(00)03388-2, 10.1007/s00897000388a, © 2000 Springer-Verlag New York, Inc.
I Wish I’d Made You Angry Earlier: Essays on Science, Scientists, and Humanity. By Max F. Perutz. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press: 10 Skyline Drive, Plainview, NY 11803-2500, 1998. Figures. xv + 354 pp. 16.0 ´ 23.3 cm. $39.00. ISBN 0-87969-524-2.
Reviewed by: George B. Kauffman and Laurie M. Kauffman, California State University, Fresno, firstname.lastname@example.org
As frequent book reviewers, we particularly enjoyed this fascinating collection of essays (22 of which are book reviews) by Max Ferdinand Perutz, the Austrian-born British biochemist who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for Chemistry with John C. Kendrew for X-ray diffraction analysis of the structure of hemoglobin. In his preface to this well-chosen selection he describes hemoglobin as his “mistress.” The reviews transcend the genre and can be read with pleasure as independent essays. The book is suitable for both browsing and for careful reading
Perutz was Director of the Medical Research Council Laboratory for Molecular Biology, Cambridge, England from its establishment in 1962 until 1979, and he remains a scientific staff member. To date nine MRC-LMB staff members have received ten Nobel prizes, and Perutz muses on the factors underlying such creativity. He concludes that:
“Creativity in science as in the arts, cannot be organised. It arises spontaneously from individual talent. Well-run laboratories can foster it, but hierarchical organisation, inflexible, bureaucratic rules, and mountains of futile paperwork can kill it. Discoveries cannot be planned; they pop up, like Puck, in unexpected corners.”
Allusions to literary and classical characters abound in Perutz’s essays and bear witness to his status as a true Renaissance man. In this collection creativity is only one of numerous scientific themes that are discussed with the same lucidity and precision that characterize Perutz’s pioneering work in crystallography.
Perutz’s book contains 28 essays, all but one of which were originally published during the period 1968–1997 in slightly different forms and mostly under different titles. Eleven appeared in The New York Review of Books, three each in London Review of Books and Nature, and one each in Nature Structural Biology, The Scientist, Gene, The Times Higher Education Supplement, New Scientist, The Independent, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Scientific American, and International Union of Crystallography.
The book is divided into four sections; the selections in the first three were written for nonscientists and consequently presuppose no scientific knowledge. Those in the last section were addressed to scientists and may be more difficult for laypersons to follow. The essays explore a remarkable range of scientific topics, and, replete with amusing and insightful anecdotes, they profile many of Perutz’s favorite scientists, some of whom he knew personally. The contents give some idea of the scope of the volume.
I. “Plowshares into Swords”
“Friend or Foe of Mankind?” (Fritz Haber, “a man’s fascination with poison gas”)
“Splitting the Atom” (Lise Meitner)
“The Man Who Patented the Bomb” (Leo Szilard, who, before his flight from Europe, “always lived with two packed suitcases, in case he had to flee from wherever he happened to be”)
“Why Did the Germans Not Make the Bomb?” (Werner Heisenberg)
“Bomb Designer Turned Dissident” (Andrei Sakharov)
“Liberating France” (François Jacob)
“Enemy Alien” (the book’s longest essay and the only one that had not been previously published. It recounts Perutz’s multifarious experiences as one of numerous German and Austrian refugees who were paradoxically classified as “enemy aliens” (the camp commander said, “I had no idea there were so many Jews among the Nazis.”) and consequently imprisoned on the Isle of Man and then deported to Canada. Perutz eventually made his way back to Britain, where he remained.)
II. “How to Make Discoveries”
“High on Science” (Peter Medawar)
“Deconstructing Pasteur” (a convincing critique of Gerald L. Geison’s revisionist biography)
“The Battle Over Vitamin C” (Albert Szent-Györgyi)
“A Mystery of the Tropics” (malaria and tropical diseases)
“The Forgotten Plague” (tuberculosis)
“What Holds Molecules Together?” (obituary of Linus Pauling)
“I Wish I’d Made You Angry Earlier” (The book’s title essay. Perutz had shown his mentor W. L. Bragg his X-ray diffraction results confirming Linus Pauling and Robert B. Corey’s a-helix model for a-keratin and stated that the idea for the experiment was sparked by his fury at missing the structure himself. Bragg replied, “‘I wish I’d made you angry earlier!’ because discovery of the 1.5-Å reflection would have led us straight to the a-helix.”)
“Big Fleas Have Little Fleas...” (Max Delbrück)
“How the Secret of Life Was Discovered” (“From the Double Helix to the Human Genome: 40 Years of Molecular Genetics,” cochairman’s remarks at a UNESCO symposium)
“Dangerous Misprints” (screening for genetic diseases)
“A Deadly Inheritance” (Harvard pediatrician David G. Nathan and thalassemia, a genetic disease resulting in defective synthesis of hemoglobin)
“Darwin Was Right” (a new view of evolution)
“A Passion for Crystals” (obituary of Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, who “radiated motherly warmth even while doing scientific work;” LMK’s favorite essay)
III. “Rights and Wrongs”
“By What Right Do We Invoke Human Rights?” (the collection’s only nonscientific essay)
“The Right to Choose” (Carl Djerassi and the contraceptive pill)
“Swords into Plowshares: Does Nuclear Energy Endanger Us?” (Britain, the welfare state, and nuclear proliferation)
IV. “More About Discoveries”
“The Second Secret of Life” (the structure of hemoglobin and respiratory transport)
“How W. L. Bragg Invented X-ray Analysis”
“Life’s Energy Cycle” (Hans Krebs and the ornithine and citric acid cycles)
“The Hormone that Makes Nerves Grow” (Rita Levi-Montalcini and the nerve growth factor, 3 pp, the collection’s shortest essay)
“How Nerves Conduct Electricity” (Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley)
A “Photo Gallery” includes 23 formal and informal portraits of some of the scientists featured in the book. As an inveterate collector of quotations and a frequent user of such pithy sayings in writings and lectures, one of us (GBK) was particularly entranced by Perutz’s 19-page classified appendix of wise sayings, “My Commonplace Book,” a name that goes back to antiquity when Greek and Roman orators collected metaphors to be used for speeches in public places. Thirteen pages of notes and references (ranging in time from Thucydides and Marcus Aurelius to 1996) and a 12-page (double-column) subject index conclude the volume.
Unfortunately, this otherwise error-free book is marred by a number of typographical misspellings, especially in proper names. Many of these were probably introduced by editors in compiling the index and do not appear in the original essays, e.g., Berthollet not Berthelot (C. L.) (pp 5, 344), Walther not Walter (Nernst) (pp 11, 349), Frédéric not Frederic Joliot (pp 26, 348), Mill not Mills (John Stuart) (pp 225, 226), Dirk not Dick (Coster) (p 345), Irène not Irene (Curie) (p 345), and Stoltzenberg not Stolzenberg (p 352). Also, nouns are not capitalized in the German title of Hahn and Strassmann’s classic article on nuclear fission (p 330).
According to Nobel Laureate Peter Medawar (physiology or medicine, 1960), one of the many scientists profiled in this book, “science at all levels of endeavour is a passionate enterprise and the pursuit of natural knowledge a sortie into the unknown.” Perutz’s book, which we heartily recommend to scientist and nonscientist alike, will convince its readers of the truth of this statement.