MOLECULAR BIOLOGY OF THE CELL
by Bruce Alberts, et al.
(Garland Science, $102)
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when you wanted the basic facts about anything under the sun, you turned first to an encyclopedia. Many a budding scholar, explorer, tinkerer, and scientist first took the flame sprawled in front of the fireplace poring over one of the hefty volumes from the family's 5-foot shelf of Truth.
In the last quarter-century, old-style encyclopedias like the Encyclopaedia Britannica have fallen on very hard times. The problem isn't just video and the Internet, which have taken over so many of the old books' instant-info function. It's more that information of the kind that used to be encyclopedias' bread and butter is accumulating so fast that no one publication can contain it all, let alone keep up.
But a new kind of encyclopedia is taking shape, and for a new kind of audience. They don't just make an up-to-date alphabetical tour of some circumscribed area of human knowledge: They also try to put all that knowledge in context. The best I've yet encountered is a Molecular Biology of the Cell.
You'll find MBoC in the textbook section of bookstores, but it's no more a proper textbook than the Encyclop餩e of Diderot et Cie. It's essentially a single 1,500-plus-page essay on the microcosm that lurks invisibly at the very roots of the tree of life. And though new information about that microcosm is accumulating so rapidly that the book can only provide a seagull-skim survey of the surface of the subject, the authors digest their material so brilliantly that one can—with patience and a decent high-school science education—actually read the damn thing. Sales prove it. With the fourth edition only just published, it's already sold over a million copies.
When Bruce Alberts and his fellow authors began working on the first edition of MBoC in the late 1970s, the rate of biological discovery had already long outpaced anyone's ability to keep up, so from its inception the book was consciously designed to serve not only as a survey of cell biology for new students in the field but also as an overview for professionals: for biochemists, geneticists, developmental biologists, students of the immune system, and working scientists who were hard put to keep up with new information in their own specialties and, once out of school, found themselves falling farther and farther behind in other essential areas. Since 1993, while continuing to preside over the every-five-years-or-so revisions of the book, Alberts has served as president of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), his declared major goal "to change the nature and extent of the science education received by every student in the United States, starting with children 5 years old and continuing through the college years."
At the NAS, Alberts' progress toward that goal has been marginal at best, but for his magnum opus, he has no reason to apologize. Taking advantage of the absolute necessity for constant thorough revision of its contents, he and his co- authors have with each edition improved every aspect of the book, polishing its plain, transparent prose, clarifying descriptions, enhancing illustrations, and adopting suggestions by literally hundreds of professional reviewers.
As a result, though not most people's notion of an easy read, MBoC is easy to read; the difficulties are the difficulties of the subject, and the authors have done everything in their power to make sure they don't introduce any difficulties or confusions of their own. It's an easy book to like, too; how many tomes on serious subjects have a picture on the back of the authors in their own version of the Sergeant Pepper album cover? (On the third edition, they were crossing Abbey Road—or the Cambridge, Mass., equivalent.)
Any reasonably literate person willing to work through the first hundred or so pages (a quick review of basic genetics and biochemistry) will be able to digest it, reading straight ahead or jumping forward to a topic of particular interest: the biochemistry of health, viral infections like AIDS, or the causes of cancer.
Why take the trouble? Because the cell is where life happens; "you" are the consequence of the collaborative activities of a few billion microscopic individuals going about the business of growing, communicating with one another, and dying, and for the most part, doing a pretty good job, even when other microscopic individuals have different plans for "you."
For most of the last 500 years, science looked outward into space and the nature of dead matter. As a result, we have a pretty clear notion of where we stand in the external scheme of things. It's time now to devote some attention to what we are. Come on; aren't you at least curious?
Roger Downey's science column appears every other week.