In an NIH blog post today, former NIH and NCI Director and current Weill Cornell Medical College Professor and New York Genome Center Senior Associate Core Member Harold Varmus has some suggestions for anyone looking for some books to take to the beach.
For books on science, Varmus recommends The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes, and Life's Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code by Matthew Cobb.
"Of the many books I've read about the growth of the scientific enterprise, The Age of Wonder stands out for several reasons: its deep engagement with the full range of cultural and political currents in which science arises; its focus on the excitement about discovery — geographical, astronomical, chemical, biological — that permeated the late 18th and early 19th centuries; and its absorption with personal histories of people who made those discoveries," Varmus says. He also calls Holmes "a superb storyteller."
And although Varmus doesn't think Cobb's book is necessarily as good as Holmes', it's still worth reading because it features the story of NIH intramural scientist Marshall Nirenberg. "It is neither necessary nor recommended to read this book in full (omit the final section that gallops through the past 40 years of genetics and genomics) to appreciate the elegance, importance, and drama of Nirenberg's unveiling of the code, a critical step in understanding the origins and functions of all living things," Varmus says.
For non-scientific books, Varmus recommends Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life by George Eliot, calling it "one of the few novels I know that creates an entire world, centered on a small English town and populated with a wide range of characters." And after that, he adds, it would be worth it to read My Life in Middlemarch, New Yorker writer Rebecca Meade's account of "what the book means to a smart modern reader."