Georgina Ferry’s Max Perutz book
September 9, 2007, 3:34 pm
Filed under: Books

Occupied as I am at present with thoughts of books, I thought I might offer a few short reviews of things I’ve read recently that are at least vaguely relevant. Georgina Ferry’s Max Perutz and the Secret of Life is one such — a lovely biography of the molecular biologist who not only solved the structure of haemoglobin but also figured outPerutz book cover how it worked. In fact, that second part is one of the book’s delights; Perutz’s most imaginative work, producing a theory of how the affinity which haemoglobin displays for oxygen differs depending on how much oxygen it is already carrying, is one of the few examples I can think of of a scientist doing his or her best work after already having received a Nobel prize.

Georgina captures a person, a place (Cambridge from the 40s to the 70s) and an intellectual transition (the creation of molecular biology) very well, it seems to me. Perutz comes across as a determined plodder more than a mercurial genius, a fussy man (spectacularly and remarkably unselfconciously so when it came to his food), probably a bit pompous and on occasion cantankerous, but well meaning, well liked and well disposed, with a great willingness to commit to his insights. In part, as the book shows, he was lucky — lucky in taking on the seemingly impossible goal of working out protein structures at just the time when it was going to become possible, and lucky in ending up at the right place to carry the goal out, Bragg’s Cavendish Laboratory. At the same time, he went out of his way to try and ensure the occasions for other peoples’ luck, setting up an inspired minimalist management structure at the Laboratory for Molecular Biology that allowed all the big brains to feel unfettered while encouraging a wonderful cross pollination of ideas.

You also have to feel fond of man who when asked for some of his Nobel-prize-worthy seed by the Repository for Germinal Choice replied

Let me tell you that I am small, bald, short-sighted and cross-eyed, that my testes have been exposed to X-rays these 44 years…and that I am plagued by multiple allergies and crippled by back trouble. This shows that the winning of the Nobel Prize does not necessarily go with other desirable genetic traits.

The bad back led him often to stretch out prone during seminars while still playing an active role, thus lending a new meaning to the idea of questions from the floor.

I usually read biographies by way of the index, starting off with an event or relationship or idea I’m curious about, reading on for a bit, then when bored going back to the index and looking for something new. In this book’s case, that meant starting off with the lovely David Keilin, a mentor to Max as he was earlier to Robin Hill (who’s the anchor for the Cambridge parts of Eating the Sun). My justification for this — which let’s face it is probably just an attention-deficit thing, at heart — is that human lives are not intrinsically story-shaped (and merely writing that phrase reminds me that sometime soon I need to get myself a copy of Ann Wroe’s deeply non-linear Shelley book) and that the traditional parents-birth-education-etc biography thus traps itself in an unsatisfactory template. But after starting this book with the Cambridge stuff I found it so interesting and agreeable that I went pretty much straight through to the end and then went back to the beginning and read all the developmental stuff I normally avoid, and quite enjoyed that too, seeing Max growing up and climbing mountains and getting a crush oh his lab partner and seeing Nazis start to exert their power in his homeland and, on returning to Austria for a holiday, being “refreshingly vulgar, a very agreeable contrast to my usual life in England”. And seeing him fall in love not just with women but also with England and Cambridge. I believe Perutz once said that a man’s country was not the one he happened to be born in, but the one he chose to die in, and this book explains a lot about how that choice shaped the life of this impressive and oddly endearing man.


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