Two Must-Read Science Books — And Why You’ve Only Heard Of One – Forbes

Precision medicine fans were treated this year to two must-read popular science books – one you’ve probably heard of, written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York physician-author, the other, less familiar, produced by a self-published biotechnology writer who grew up “shoveling pig sh-t” on a farm in Wisconsin. The contrasting styles of these books reflect the very different characteristics of each author; yet both tell important stories worthy of your attention.

Lee Hood and Luke Timmerman at the Cancer Moonshot Summit, Howard University, Washington D.C., June 29, 2016. Photo Credit: David Shaywitz

Lee Hood and Luke Timmerman at the Cancer Moonshot Summit, Howard University, Washington D.C., June 29, 2016. Photo Credit: David Shaywitz

(Disclosure/reminder: I’m Chief Medical Officer of DNAnexus, a health data management company.)

If you polled the members of my MGH internal medicine residency program, and asked who in our class was most likely to become a public intellectual and write best-selling books that Tim Burns would turn into miniseries, the unanimous – and correct — choice would have been Sid Mukherjee. Even fifteen years ago, he was a magnificent writer and a conspicuously charming speaker – as well as a gifted physician.

Mukherjee’s most recent book, The Gene: An Intimate History, is an engaging intellectual history of the ideas around genetics and heredity, and has the feel of a captivating dinner party conversation you don’t want to end. Yes, there’s the occasional turn of phrase that’s perhaps a bit too clever or too cute, but these are only minor distractions in the context of his magnificent story telling. The Gene is enthralling, and a treat for anyone hoping to learn more about the evolution of the concepts behind precision medicine. (See this lovely review by Euan Ashley in The Lancet.)

I was also absorbed this year by Hood: Trailblazer of the Genomics Age, Luke Timmerman’s rich biography of the technologist who helped drive so many of the advances associated with contemporary biology, including the automated sequencing and synthesis of DNA and proteins.

While Mukherjee’s book, published by Simon and Schuster, has been nominated for a range of awards and has graced a number of best seller lists, including The New York Times, Timmerman’s book has struggled for attention – which is unfortunate, as it’s a compelling account of one our nation’s most important and impactful scientists.

If the star of The Gene is Mukherjee, using the history of genetics as the raw material for his engaging riffs on the evolution of scientific ideas, the star of Hood is unquestionably the subject, Lee Hood; Timmerman, an accomplished biomedical writer, is virtually absent from the story, providing the reader with a sense of immersion, and the feeling of a disintermediated experience.

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