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Scientists' Nightstand: Victor McElheny

Frank Diller

Victor K. McElheny is a visiting scholar in MIT's Program in Science, Technology and Society and the author, most recently, of Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution (Perseus Books, reviewed in the July-August 2003 issue: He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard from 1962 to 1963 and has worked as a science reporter and editor for a variety of publications, including Science, the Boston Globe and the New York Times. From 1978 to 1982, McElheny was director of the Banbury Center at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. He founded MIT's Knight Science Journalism fellowships in 1982 and served as director of that program until 1998.

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?

James Shreeve, The Genome War: How Craig Venter Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World
Stephen S. Hall, Merchants of Immortality: Chasing the Dream of Human Life Extension

These two books are directly relevant to my current writing project, a history of the Human Genome Project. Shreeve obtained close access to Craig Venter's Celera enterprise and presents the race for the draft genome sequence in compelling, often critical detail. Hall continues his intelligent and elegant explorations at the frontiers of biology, with a stern look at the hype.

Victor McElhenyClick to Enlarge Image

Edgar Vincent, Nelson: Love and Fame

Nelson is a fascinating exploration of exceptionally bold leadership, which was the subject of my recent biography of James Watson and of my previous biography of Edwin Land of Polaroid, Insisting on the Impossible (Perseus 1998).

John Keegan, Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda

As a small boy during World War II, I became enduringly fascinated by wars of the past and the present. Keegan, the author of such fine books as The Face of Battle, is one of my favorite explorers of the military events that affect even those far from the battlefield.

Roger Lowenstein, Origins of the Crash: The Great Bubble and Its Undoing

I often find my attention turning to economics, not merely to try to understand the conditions for innovation but also to keep track of major trends in the society and its politics. Lowenstein's account of the mania leading up to the last few years of plunging stock markets and executive misdeeds helps pull together all the elements of these menacing events.

Arthur Gelb, City Room

Since youth, I have been involved in journalism. When I headed my high school paper, I read Meyer Berger's centennial history of the New York Times, where it was my ambition to work someday. The dream was realized in my five years as technology reporter at the Times (1973 to 1978). Of the executives who interviewed me, I remember Arthur Gelb as the most sparkling, full of energy and ideas. Gelb had much to do with the formation of the weekly science section, Science Times, in 1978. I bought City Room after seeing him and others discussing it on C-SPAN 2.

David Lindley, Degrees Kelvin: A Tale of Genius, Invention, and Tragedy

Physicist David Lindley's book on William Thomson, the scientist who not only was central to the study of heat and electricity but also solved central technical problems of transatlantic telegraph cables, is an extraordinary look into the physics of the mid-19th century. It shows not only the origins of much of what came later but also the large number of facts and concepts that were missing at a particular epoch in science.

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

At home, nights and weekends.

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

There are so many! I suppose one must look at what one read early, and what one rereads. My lifelong fascination with history began with Lytton Strachey's Queen Victoria, which I started reading just as I heard a radio broadcast of Victoria Regina with Helen Hayes.

Fred Hoyle's The Nature of the Universe drew me into the excitement of astronomy. 

Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft beautifully epitomized the existence of the modern person, living with no more certainty than a dweller on a raft. 

C.P. Snow's The Two Cultures excited me by showing, prophetically, how swiftly the flame of innovation might pass from rich countries to poor. 

In the late 1940s, I saw Olivier's movies, Henry V and Hamlet, and the Broadway production of As You Like It with William Prince and Katharine Hepburn. So those Shakespeare plays became favorites. 

Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace was already part of the mental furniture in childhood, and Anna Karenina joined it during a college course in the 1950s.  

A favorite history is Garrett Mattingly's The Armada (1959). A more recent one is David Herbert Donald's Lincoln (1995), which is the story of the formation and evolution of a character brutally cut off. 

Of course, I loved Jim Watson's The Double Helix, whose publication I covered for the Boston Globe.

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

Anna Karenina has to be a favorite. One cares so intensely about what will happen to these people and is moved by the exquisite, strong evocations of nature. Homer's Odyssey is a hymn to intelligence and courage, symbolized by crucial visits from the goddess of wisdom, Athena; the stories and stories within stories, of which the most affecting is that of the faithful swineherd, arranged in fascinating flashbacks, must have made wonderful evening entertainments. 

I admire intensely Conyers Read's studies of the two leading ministers of Queen Elizabeth I, Mr. Secretary Cecil and Queen Elizabeth (1955) and Mr. Secretary Walsingham and the Policy of Queen Elizabeth (1925). These are extraordinary accounts of the role of intellect and emotion in politics. For sheer brass and pace, it is hard to beat Huckleberry Finn. And Francis Parkman's history of the French in North America is breathtaking, and quite bloody—a masterpiece.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

Meyer Berger's The Story of the New York Times 1851–1951 greatly influenced my choice of journalism as a career. George Orwell's essays, recommended to me 50 years ago by my journalist colleague David Halberstam, have always inspired me to avoid vagueness, embrace concreteness, and cut, cut, cut.

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

On my bedside table are William Taubman's Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, Jenny Uglow's The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World and Robert Dallek's An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

Anything that appeals to the curiosity of young people, particularly stories of exploration and adventure. The story of Sir Ernest Shackleton, told by himself and others, is hard to beat for a combination of daring restrained by a determination not to lose a man. 

An obvious choice is Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis, a satirical and yet serious look at what science is like. And don't forget Paul de Kruif's Microbe Hunters, written by the bacteriologist who served as Lewis's consultant on Arrowsmith

Kon-Tiki remains a marvelous story. For sheer drama in space exploration, one can't go wrong with Andrew Chaikin's book on Apollo, A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts—as a teenager, he actually got to see the fiery nighttime takeoff of Apollo 17 in 1972. 

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

A choice that leaps to mind is Jonathan Weiner's account of evolution research on a tiny island in the Galápagos, The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time.  Richard Rhodes's The Making of the Atomic Bomb is a marvelous evocation of the interplay between science and a huge engineering project with vast and fearful implications.

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

François Jacob's The Statue Within: An Autobiography is a marvelous evocation of a scientist's life.

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