Books

Meeting Bob, the tomcat

Last week, my laptop broke. I took it to the Apple Store and decided to make a quick tour through the bookstore, to get a little present for my pregnant friend. One book immediately attracted my attention, “Bob, der Streuner: Die Katze, die mein Leben veränderte”. The cat looking at me from the cover was adorable and I was inclined to buy it. However, I don’t really like reading in German, especially translated things, because I think a lot of the original flavor is lost. Both by translating and by my misunderstanding of the German language.

Some ten minutes later, the same cat is looking at me. But from beneath an English title this time. I pick up the book, quickly scan it and see that it’s a true story. Hmmm, I usually either read science books or fantasy. I put the book back. After finally finding a present for my friend, I walk past the cat again. And realize it’s really THIS cat the story is about, as I see him sitting on the shoulder of a man on the back. He’s won me over. I have to buy the book, despite my promise to myself to not buy any more books!

It tells the story of a young man living on the streets of London, who meets and adopts a stray cat. This turns out to be a real turning point in his life. I’m not going to repeat the entire story, go buy the book! However, it really got me thinking. It’s over a week ago that I read it, but I’m still thinking about it. Even more surprising, that I feel inclined to write a blog post about it. After all, this blog is about academia, about science, maybe a little about me. But not about stray cats! Although admittedly, I like cats….

It is an eyeopener. I usually give something to people making music on the streets. But how often was that accompanied with a thought along the line of “why don’t you get a job”? Looks like that is way too hasty. These are all people with a story. Book author James Bowen and Bob were very lucky to meet each other and get to tell their story. But all these others trying to find their way on the streets – animal and human alike – also deserve a fair chance. I’ll start with a donation to the Blue Cross and a smile to accompany gifts instead of some not-so-nice-thoughts, maybe those little things might make a difference already.

I’m really grateful that James told his story, as I think it may be exactly what others need to also escape the streets. He and Bob have won my heart in any case.

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Summer reading tip ~ American Prometheus

J. Robert Oppenheimer was an extraordinary scientist. Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin have invested 25 years (!) in chronicling his life and work. And the result is amazing. I’ve called this post “Summer reading tip“, as the resulting book is a whopping 591 pages. With very small letters. Meaning it may take more than a few hours to read it, making it a perfect read for the summer holidays!

It has had me in its grip from the very first page. It is not only an account of Robert’s life, but also sets the stage very concisely. Did you know, for example, that apparently also Harvard set a quota in the early 1920 to restrict the number of Jewish students it would take in? Meaning that it’s not only a nice way to relax on the beach, but to learn a bit of history while at it 😀

So yes, I am very glad I decided to buy the book and am looking forward to reading it completely! To learn how he became involved with the development of the atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project, what this meant for his personal contacts with scientists in Germany. How he realized how extremely powerful this weapon is and started to fight against it…

The Double Helix continued

As a commenter rightly pointed out in my previous post about “the Double Helix” by Watson, this book is a memoir. It thus does not necessarily depict the truth or a general view of events. After digging a bit deeper into the topic, I stumbled across so much interesting material that I had to conclude I cannot read it all. Or maybe I could, but then my own research would suffer 😉

One of the articles I did read through completely, is this one that contains an account of events by PhD student Gosling. He also describes that the project was of to a rough start, mainly because Randall hired Franklin without Goslings or Wilkins knowledge. Gosling got caught between Franklin and Wilkins and consequently didn’t have an easy time. Despite this, Gosling has great respect for Randall and believes his drive and vision have been essential for the double helix discovery. (also see box 2 in aforementioned article to see a summary of the main players according to Gosling)

What really caught my attention however, is the fact that nobody really seemed to care about their results on the structure of DNA initially. Gosling was apparently terrified before his viva. And partially because of lack in interest in the double helix, he switched fields after completing his PhD work. According to him, it was actually the publishing of Watson’s “novel” that really got it going. Negatively commented on or not, it did get a lot of attention.

I cannot judge who has been right or wrong in the process leading up to the Nobel prize. Watson, Crick, Wilkins, Franklin and Gosling did a great job solving this puzzle, together with the people who remain a bit more in the shadows. What we can learn from this though are at least these two things:

  • Communication and management skills are absolutely necessary – this story could have progressed a lot smoother if more of the people involved had had better people skills.
  • Second, I teaches us to think big. Even if the world does not believe your story yet or deem it important, insights may change. If you truly believe in something, just go for it. Maybe consider writing a novel about it “to get it going” if need be 😉