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Scientists' Nightstand: Francis Collins

Physician-geneticist Francis S. Collins directs the National Human Genome Research Institute and has led the Human Genome Project since 1993. In earlier research he helped to discover the genetic misspellings that cause cystic fibrosis, neurofibromatosis and Huntington's disease. His latest book is The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, 2006).Francis CollinsClick to Enlarge Image

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure? Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

Currently reading for pleasure: Intuition, by Allegra Goodman (Dial Press, 2006), a story of tension and intrigue in a Boston molecular biology lab. Considering the author is not herself a scientist, the depiction is startlingly realistic—warts and all.

For work on the human genome, I rarely read books. The field moves too quickly for that—it's all about e-pub journal articles and online databases!

I have a separate interest in the topic of science and faith, for which I have read several books over the past year, the most recent of which is Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell (Viking, 2006). My own thoughts on this topic were published in July in The Language of God.

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?

You thought there was regularity in my life? Ha!

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?

My favorite writer of all time is the Oxford scholar C. S. Lewis. He is best known for the Chronicles of Narnia, but it is his nonfiction books that I find most rewarding, and I return to them again and again. His writings combine elegant prose with powerful insight into life, death, suffering and faith.

What are the three best books you've ever read? Explain.

You'll think it's corny, but number one is the Bible. And yes, I've read the whole thing. After that, C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity (Macmillan, 1952). After that, and in a rather different category, I'd have to list Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

Same as the previous question—the Bible. It is timeless in its revelation of truth.

Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion (Knopf, 2005): This is the story of her own experience with the serious illness of her daughter and the death of her husband. I heard her speak about a month ago, and I am very interested to read her narrative of such a wrenching set of life experiences.

Challenging Nature, by Lee Silver (Ecco, 2006) [reviewed in the September-October 2006 issue]: Lee is always provocative and articulate (and sometimes a bit outrageous) in his views on what genetics and biotechnology hold for the future of humankind.

The Universe in a Single Atom, by the Dalai Lama (Morgan Road Books, 2005): I have been very interested to see the growing interest in science expressed by the Dalai Lama, as evidenced by his appearance at the Society for Neuroscience meeting [in November 2005]. I'm curious to see how he puts together the Buddhist and scientific perspectives on nature.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

Genome, by Matt Ridley (HarperCollins, 1999), The Double Helix by James Watson (Atheneum, 1968) and (somewhat immodestly) The Language of God, by yours truly.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

The first two listed in the question above would be excellent. Another excellent one would be Mapping Human History, by Steve Olson (Houghton Mifflin, 2002), which explains population genetics in a wonderfully accessible way.

Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.

Again, I'd point to Matt Ridley's Genome—it conveys the excitement of exploring the human instruction book in a marvelous way.

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