The Lasker book prize

Well, not really.

The 2016 Lasker~Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science has been given to Bruce M. Alberts for “Discoveries in DNA replication, and leadership in science and education”.

Bruce Alberts

The citation on the Lasker Foundation website says:

In his research, Bruce M. Alberts (University of California, San Francisco) devised powerful experimental tools that helped him understand the mechanism by which cells copy DNA, thereby establishing a new paradigm of molecular machines that perform crucial physiological functions.

There is a lovely interview with Alberts in PLOS Genetics, mentioning his early ambition to solve genetic code, and a meeting with Francis Crick.


But I’m a librarian and when I see the name ‘Bruce Alberts’ I immediately visualise one of the most popular books on the biology shelves: Molecular Biology of the Cell (MBoC). At Mill Hill it was one of the few books that we bought multiple copies of for the library, and you can be sure that many of the labs there also had a copy on their shelves. Despite that it was rare to find a copy of the latest edition on the library shelves. Our copies were usually on loan – officially or unofficially.

The Award citation acknowledges the importance of this book:

Aiming to share not only what he knew about biochemistry, but to teach students how to think like scientists, he teamed up with a small group of colleagues to write an innovative cell biology textbook, now in its 6th edition, that has inspired countless individuals worldwide to find joy in experimentation, discovery, and logical reasoning.

The book’s fame and influence have secured it an entry in Wikipedia:

Molecular Biology of the Cell is a cellular and molecular biology textbook …The book was first published in 1983 and is now in its sixth edition.  Molecular Biology of the Cell has been described as “the most influential cell biology textbook of its time”.

I looked back at what reviewers said when the book first came out in 1983. Writing in Cell John Cairns observed presciently:

This is a marvelous book and is going to attract a lot of attention… it is enormous and covers a vast array of subjects.

He went on to say:

The pictures are excellent, the text is straightforward and readable, and about once every ten pages we are given a summary. Facts are laid out before us most lucidly…

Perhaps the sign of the coming of age for any subject, even procaryotic molecular biology, is that the successive waves of teachers and students should no longer have to hear about the details. Perhaps this book will be seen to have signalled the end of an era and, in its second half, to have given us a taste of what is to come.

Throughout its length, the book is written in an unobtrusively lucid style, which is the mark of much tender loving care.

The fourth edition came out in 2002, and was the first to include a CDROM accompaniment. Writing in Nature Angus Lamond said of this edition:

A generation of students have learned the basics of molecular cell biology thanks in no small part to courses based on the pioneering textbook Molecular Biology of the Cell…Through three editions it has established an enviable record for high-quality presentation, with the authors showing a remarkable ability to make both basic concepts and cutting-edge research topics accessible to readers.

The new edition is even larger than its predecessors, reflecting the vigorous activity of the field and the inexorable expansion of detailed information regarding cellular processes and molecular structures and interactions. …the punctilious attention to detail and effort devoted by the authors to covering this huge field in a lucid and easy-to-read style shines through on every page.

More recently the science historian Norberto Serpente wrote an affectionate  article to mark 30 years of MBoC, in which he cites a number of other reviews of the book.

He notes:

The pedagogical value of MBoC, as most reviewers agreed, was to be found in the design and quality of the illustrations, which condensed complex ideas into simple schematics, and in the clarity, consistency and emphasis on explanation achieved in its writing.

The Goodreads website page for MBoC is a rich source of ‘reviews’ of, or comments on, the book. Many of these are pithier than the above quotes, but still pretty overwhelmingly positive. Some of my favourite comments there were:

One of the most comprehensive cell biology books that served as a great reference for the start of my biology career.

Why read the bible if you could read this instead?

I learned a lot from this book. I give it a 5 because it is a great paper weight.

My biggest problem with this text is that it is really heavy. I actually dropped it and broke two toes.

Honouring great science books

The Lasker prize has form when it comes to celebrating great books. In 2012 the Lasker prize was awarded to Tom Maniatis.  The citation included this:

Maniatis created the quintessential Molecular Cloning manual—based on his own pioneering work—and thus spread revolutionary technologies into a multitude of laboratories across the world.

I wonder who should be next – what other scientists have combined great achievements in the lab with genuinely groundbreaking book publishing?

It’s interesting that the books by Maniatis and Alberts are both in the field of molecular biology. This field inspired a revolution in the way we approach biological problems and both books played their part in facilitating the spread of the revolution.

I’d like to nominate David Lipman for his work in developing the NCBI services, including PubMed. I’m not familiar with his work outside NCBI, but Wikipedia tells me that:

He is most well known for his work on a series of sequence similarity algorithm, starting from the Wilbur-Lipman algorithm in 1983, FASTA search search in 1985, BLAST in 1990, and Gapped BLAST and PSI-BLAST in 1997

Who would you nominate?

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we slip from print through to electronic information resources.
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