Book review 3: Sydney Brenner – A Biography

I’m reading more and more often now, and continuously buy book from amazon, on hardcover or kindle version. One of the latest is this one:


“Sydney Brenner : A biography” by Errol Friedberg. (Amazon link here)

What did I think about it ? 

LOVED IT !  Sydner Brenner is one of these scientists that enters in the “living legends” category. If you wouldn’t know he still lives on the same planet then us (and gives conferences), you would bet this book describes a fictional and slightly unreal character.

I read it more like a historic novel about molecular biology then a biography; and was totally hooked to the story. For the biologists of my age (25), DNA, RNA, PCR, molecular cloning, sequencing genomes, are stuff we learned from text books as undergrads, without realizing it was such recent history. I still have a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that 40-50 years ago, people where trying to figure the very basics of DNA, genes, genetic code, mutations, etc … 

When reading the book, you are not even tempted to think  “come onnnn, how was that not obvious to you, geniuses ?” or be bored, because it’s written so well that you forget about your own knowledge, and “live” the discoveries with Brenner, Watson, Crick, Nirenberg, and so on. Seriously they could make a nerdy TV Show out of this. 

And you realize (because you tend to forget) that it’s easy for no one in science, not even “geniuses”. The chapter describing Brenner and Jacob doing the “Tape experiment” in California was an eye opener. For a month, they did not get any results and where completly depressed about it. But they did this “extra-mile”; taking a deep breath (at the beach); and going to the lab one more time. And make it work. Good to remember it when stuff fails.

Aside of the anecdote, the book is literally a journey trough Brenner’s scientific, from school in South Africa to Singapour & beyond. From the birth or molecular biology to next-generation sequencing. 

I learned so many things reading it, but also laughed a lot; because Brenner seems to be one quirky and funny fellow. One anecdote I can remember is this fake “personal communication” they put as a reference in a 70 pages long article as being from “Leonardo de Vinci” ! An one of the reviewers picked it up saying “Who is this italian guy ?” There are so may of these little jewels in the book, I will probably read it all over and bookmark them ! 

That last sentence probably tells you everything that actually needs to be said … 

Book review 1 : Mastering your PhD

Here come a new “series” of posts … books ! Not nerdy science articles, but real books that you can buy in hardcover for the old-fashioned ones (;-)) or download on your tablet for the geeks !  I wish I would take more time to read books instead of surfing the internet for hours, but somehow it’s a difficult take that step …

Anyway, there is a book that I read back to back about 6 months after I started my PhD, and surprise surprise, it’s about doing a PhD !

Mastering your PhD: Survival and Success in the doctoral years and beyond is a book written by Patricia Gosling and Lambertus Noordam, edited by Springer. (Amazon link over here)

What is is about ? 

It’s about all the not-directly-related-to-science aspects of the PhD, and the chapters come in the natural order all these subjects arise  : How to design good experiments, dealing with setbacks, how to deal with your lab mates and mentor, mastering presentations, first international conference, from data to manuscript, the final year, and what comes after … (and many more)

What did I think ? 

Thumbs up …  

-The book looks very serious and “academic”, but it’s actually very fun, and nice to read ! The description on the different types of research groups, from the “young ambitious investigator” to the “empire, lead by an old scientist and senior post-docs” was so good ! Also, the analysis of the different characters of the lab, like “Golden boy”, is very close to the reality …

-The advices given are realistic and totally applicable. Some of them seem actually very natural.

-It goes through the entire PhD path, so you can basically make usage of the book anytime.

Thumbs down … 

– The book consists mainly of  “theoretical” chapters, but offers here and there some “side stories” about a fictional research team. It sounds nice like that, but I did not like these parts that much, and skipped them towards the end.

– I cannot find anything else …

Well, I am not doing any “promoting” or publicity here, just giving my opinion about the book I read, you can judge by yourself if you want to read it or not sometime !