books book reviews

Short reviews of recent popular scientific and medical books

reviewed by T. Nelson


Avoid Boring People

by James Watson
Vintage 2007, 2010, 347 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

James Watson won the Nobel Prize in 1962 along with Francis Crick for discovering the double helix structure of DNA in 1953. In this autobiography he gives us his advice for running a lab and how to behave if you win the Nobel Prize. Here's a typical passage:

Behind our house was an alley that separated the homes on the west side of Luella Avenue from those on the east side of Paxton Avenue. The general absence of cars made it a safe place for games of kick-the-can or setting off firecrackers that could still be bought freely around the Fourth of July. When I finally began to grow past five feet, a backboard with a basketball hoop was put up above our garage doors, allowing me to practice my free throws after school. Scarce family funds also purchased a ping-pong table to liven up winter days.

That's from his early life, but the whole book is in this style. If you're interested in what a rather boring biology student who happened to make a big discovery did his whole life, this is the book for you.

One interesting point in this book is his depiction of X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin's work and where it touched on the DNA story. Her work contributed to our understanding of DNA, as did the work of many others.

Watson also gives us some “Remembered Lessons” including “Exaggerations do not void basic truths”, “Become the chairman,” and “Avoid boring people.” About the latter he says “Not boring others, of course, requires that you take pains not to become boring, as often happens when you begin to bore yourself.” Uh-huh.

There is no discussion of any philosophy of life, no discussion of his views on speaking honestly on controversial topics, and no mention of why he sold his prize to make money; just a recitation of how academia was sixty years ago. Thus, there's little here that generates either sympathy or antipathy. He says it was written mainly to benefit future biographers, but I suspect its real goal was to dissuade them.

apr 16, 2019; edited apr 18, 2019


Beyond Weird: Why everything you knew about quantum physics is different

by Philip Ball
Chicago 2018, 377 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

Fairly uninteresting book explaining the “weirdness” of QM on a very low level. PC writing style.

nov 02, 2018


Am I Dying?
Should you chill out or freak out? A complete guide to your symptoms—and what to do next

by Christopher Kelly and Marc Eisenberg

Harper Collins 2019, 337 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

Patients don't need to know about pathological mechanisms. Even The Merck Manual (which I highly recommend, by the way) is too much for most patients. No, what they need to know are the symptoms of the diseases they're likely to get, and whether they're going to die, and they need it quick so they can read it while they're still alive, since otherwise they would have trouble turning the pages.

That's where Am I Dying? comes in. It gives what doctors call the classic symptoms of the common things patients come in with, like headaches, heart pain, abdominal pain, skin and hair problems, and problems with their reproductive parts. Each disease has three sections: Take a chill pill, Make an appointment, and Get to the ER, so patients can match their symptoms and figure out what to do.

Yes it's superficial, but it's fairly witty, very accurate, and easy to read. Schools ought to teach this stuff in health class.

feb 24, 2019

Excellent Sheep:
The Miseducation of the American Elite & the Way To a Meaningful Life

by William Deresiewicz
moved to here