One Book Good, Two Books Better?

Well, from the author’s viewpoint it’s a no-brainer in the regrettable modern argot but, aside from that lone and far from impartial figure, it probably depends on who’s doing the reading. So let’s get the basics clear: this blog is about current topics related to cancer and the idea is to follow – albeit even more colloquially – the style and content of Betrayed by Nature (that’s Book 1, by the way).

Book 2 has just come out and it’s a textbook. The title tells all: Introduction to Cancer Biology – written to take students from high school/sixth form to degree level in cell & molecular biology and cancer – or indeed anyone else who moves into the field from what’s sometimes deferentially referred to as the ‘hard sciences’ (that means, for example, folk like physicists and maths whizzos who decide to take on the challenge of disentangling cancer).

So, of course, the Christmas message is “Read both” – but, being serious for a mo, only take on Book 2 if you are (or at least thinking of becoming), ‘a serious scientist’ and, contrary to what you may be told, there aren’t many of them – we really are jolly souls and labs resound to shrieks of mirth and girlish giggles (and that’s just the blokes).

So by the end of Book 2 we’ve met a lot of genes and much of the complexity of cancer is laid bare in grizzly detail, whereas in BbN the aim is to tell the essential story in entertaining style. Even so, both books were written with the same guiding principle: the way our cells behave – and misbehave – is a wonderful, compelling tale and they come together as a work of art – a human being. The challenge for the author is to convey all that through the words you put down on the page.

I’m not the first scientist to recognise the problem. Max Born (who won the 1954 Nobel prize in physics for his work on quantum mechanics – he was great mates with Werner Heisenberg – of uncertainty fame) wrote “To present a scientific subject in an attractive and stimulating manner is an artistic task, similar to that of a novelist or even a dramatic writer. The same holds for writing textbooks.” Couldn’t have put it better Max.

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