In Search of the Double Helix (Penguin science)

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9780140248135: In Search of the Double Helix (Penguin science)

Molecular biology is one of the great modern sciences. Headline-making developments in cloning, genetic engineering and the fight against disease all stem from the breakthrough in the 1950s and 60s of the identification of the molecule of life, DNA. This book sets out to tell the entire story of evolution: from Darwin to DNA and beyond, giving full credit to the role of quantum physics in our modern understanding of life itself, including human life.

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Though often told, the story of the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA is such an exciting drama that it rarely fails to fascinate, especially in the hands of an expert science writer like John Gribbin. Gribbin, a Cambridge-educated astrophysicist, has had the advantage of living and working as a science journalist through the decades when Crick and Watson were making their Nobel prize-winning discovery.

Though this is a reprint of a book first published in 1985, the bulk of the story remains unchanged. Gribbin takes the reader from the early 19th century, the people and ideas that influenced Darwin, rapidly though Mendelian genetics and inheritance into the depths of modern quantum physics and chemistry. There is some fairly serious science here but with a bit of effort and the help of the diagrams in the book, the general reader can get the drift of the most important ideas. Gribbin always provides a human angle through a knowledge of the scientists who have made the discoveries and had the ideas. They provide the essential background to understanding the importance of the double helix story and its consequences which have revolutionised so much of modern biological science.

The last part of the book returns to the Darwin connection and the tricky question of the The Descent of Man (Darwin's book was published in1871) and its update. Molecular evolution and the use of the molecular clock have overthrown traditional ideas about our relationship with the apes and the recency of a common ancestor. It is perhaps a pity that Gribbin has not added other more recent developments to the story, such as the ramifications of our new ability to "read" the complete genetic code for organisms, but he is a prolific author and is no doubt working on it. -- Douglas Palmer

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