A brilliant addition to the literature on the history of biological discovery.

THE SECRET OF LIFE

ROSALIND FRANKLIN, JAMES WATSON, FRANCIS CRICK, AND THE DISCOVERY OF DNA'S DOUBLE HELIX

A medical historian offers a new history of one of the 20th century’s most significant scientific quests.

The structure of DNA, announced in 1953 by James Watson and Francis Crick, marked the beginning of the spectacular genetics revolution that has continually accelerated since then. There is no shortage of excellent histories, but Markel, a Guggenheim fellow and professor of medicine at the University of Michigan, has written one of the best. After a quick review of the relevant advancements in the 19th century, the author delivers long, satisfying biographies of the leading figures as well as a large supporting cast, including Linus Pauling and John Randall, who directed the biophysics unit at King’s College in London. Markel provides a meticulous account of DNA research by others, as well, and he emphasizes that Watson and Crick made their breakthrough by examining X-ray photographs of DNA crystals. Producing such crystals required extraordinary dexterity, and photographing them demanded acute technical expertise, which often included building X-ray machines from scratch. The X-ray experts were Maurice Wilkins (who shared the Nobel Prize with Watson and Crick) and Rosalind Franklin, recruited in 1950 when Wilkins seemed to be stalled. Nearly every historian in this area explores the intense dislike between Wilkins and Franklin; all, Markel included, deliver reasonable, if differing explanations. Watson famously disparaged her in his 1968 bestseller, The Double Helix (“he transmogrified her into ‘Rosy,’ the one-dimensional archenemy”), but Markel turns up admirers. In the end, Watson and Crick examined X-rays (Franklin’s were better than Wilkins’), built their model, and went down in history. Franklin died in 1958, and the others barely mentioned her in their 30-minute Nobel Prize lectures in 1962. Nowadays, everyone agrees that she was treated badly and that her work—examined without her permission (“one of the most egregious ripoffs in the history of science”)—was essential to the discovery, but during her life, she never expressed resentment.

A brilliant addition to the literature on the history of biological discovery.

Pub Date: Sept. 21, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-324-00223-9

Page Count: 608

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: July 30, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2021

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A solid work of investigation that, while treading well-covered ground, offers plenty of surprises.

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PERIL

An account of the last gasps of the Trump administration, completing a trilogy begun with Fear (2018) and Rage (2020).

One of Woodward and fellow Washington Post reporter Costa’s most memorable revelations comes right away: Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, calling his counterpart in Beijing to assure him that even after Jan. 6 and what Milley saw as an unmistakable attempt at a coup d’état, he would keep Trump from picking a war with China. This depiction has earned much attention on the talking-heads news channels, but more significant is its follow-up: Milley did so because he was concerned that Trump “might still be looking for what Milley called a ‘Reichstag moment.’ ” Milley emerges as a stalwart protector of the Constitution who constantly courted Trump’s ire and yet somehow survived without being fired. No less concerned about Trump’s erratic behavior was Paul Ryan, the former Speaker of the House, who studied the psychiatric literature for a big takeaway: “Do not humiliate Trump in public. Humiliating a narcissist risked real danger, a frantic lashing out if he felt threatened or criticized.” Losing the 2020 election was one such humiliation, and Woodward and Costa closely track the trajectory of Trump’s reaction, from depression to howling rage to the stubborn belief that the election was rigged. There are a few other modest revelations in the book, including the fact that Trump loyalist William Barr warned him that the electorate didn’t like him. “They just think you’re a fucking asshole,” Barr told his boss. That was true enough, and the civil war that the authors recount among various offices in the White House and government reveals that Trump’s people were only ever tentatively his. All the same, the authors note, having drawn on scores of “deep background” interviews, Trump still has his base, still intends vengeance by way of a comeback, and still constitutes the peril of their title.

A solid work of investigation that, while treading well-covered ground, offers plenty of surprises.

Pub Date: Sept. 21, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-982182-91-5

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Sept. 24, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2021

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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