Dear Young Friends: 

As promised in my talk, I am enclosing a list of twelve books, together with some personal comments. These are selected from the notes I wrote in the past ten years for students at the Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai on some of the books in our reading room. I felt that my life was very much enriched and my scientific work greatly benefited from the books I have read in the past, including those included here. Many great scientists are my mentors and taught me how to do science through their writings. Reading the first-hand account of the process of discovery by the discoverers themselves is probably the most effective way of learning how to do creative and original science.

Some books have translated versions published in Chinese. However, I highly recommend reading these books in their original language – not only for accuracy but also for learning how to write in English. You should pay some attention to the way messages are presented, in addition to the messages themselves. It is a joy to read writings by scientists like Peter Medawar, Francis Crick, Stephen J. Gould, and Richard Lewontin. The clarity, accuracy, and charm are often lost in translation. Good writings are like pieces of artwork to be appreciated and enjoyed.

Best wishes to fruitful reading,

Mu-ming Poo


1. My poor typing skill for Chinese characters prevented me from writing these notes in Chinese.

2. Some students asked for the digital version of the books I suggested. I do not have it. I guess you can ask your library to purchase the book or order it yourself by mail through Amazon Books.

P.S. I have the pdf file of the Medawar book, and another book “On Being a Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research”.  I have enclosed these two files.  However, there is copyright to these books, thus you absolutely cannot post these files on any web site.  However, you can share them with your fellow students. 


1. The Eighth Day of Creation, by Horace F. Judson (Cold Spring Harbor Lab Press, 1976, 1996)


If you are going to read only one book outside your immediate field of study in your entire graduate school period, I recommend this one. Judson was a former science reporter for Time magazine. For a period of more than ten years during 1960s to 1970s, he tracked down and interviewed more than one hundred scientists who were involved in one way or another in the birth of molecular biology. With college training in chemistry, Judson was able to digest relevant scientific literature and integrated them into the personal history of the scientists and their discoveries. His story on the discovery of the double helix is more extensive and authentic than the one given by James Watson in “The Double Helix”. The best part of this book is the extensive quotes from original interviews with makers of molecular biology – characters like Delbruck, Luria, Watson, Crick, Chargaff, Perutz, Jacobs, Monod, etc. You will find out how pioneering scientists think and act before, during and after major scientific discoveries. Nowhere is the history of scientific discovery more vividly unfolded. After the publication of this book, Judson was offered a professorship at Johns Hopkins University for teaching science writing. 


2. Advice to a Young Scientist, by Peter B. Medawar (Harper & Row Publishers, 1979)


Peter Medawar, a Nobel Prize winner for his discovery on the immunology of tissue transplants, was the most prominent British biologist before his death in 1987. He was known for his wit and insights on science, scientists and society in general, and for being the best scientist-writer of his time. He has published many books (mostly collections of essays), every one of them a gem in science writing. This book actually contains advice that is relevant to scientists of all ages. I was 40 years old when I first read this book, and I have returned to it several times since then and found it still refreshing. Medawar offered many insightful comments and advice on various aspects of the scientist’s life – finding mentors, selecting research topics, performing research work, collaborating with other scientists, making oral presentation, writing scientific papers, dealing with racial and gender prejudices, coping with fame and honors, and managing a good family life. The famous Spanish neuroanatomist and Nobel Prize winner Ramon y Cajal (1852-1934) had also written a book with a very similar title (“Advice for a Young Investigator”) that is worth reading, but Medawar’s book is more appropriate for scientists in the modern world.

3. What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery, by Franics Crick (Basic Books, 1988)


This is a “scientific” autobiography by the most brilliant biologist of our time. In this book, Crick mainly wrote about his scientific activities during the classic period of molecular biology (from 1953 to about 1966, when the genetic code was elucidated). The beginning of Crick’s scientific career was rather unremarkable, and he recounted it in an illuminating way – how he decided to work in biology by the “gossip test” (“What you are really interested in is what you gossip about”), how unsuccessful he was in getting into a good lab (as a graduate student over 30 years old with a rather poor record), and how boring were his early research and his first two papers in Experimental Cell Research. The main part of the book begins with the chapter on his work with James Watson that led to the discovery of the double helical structure of the DNA molecule. To me, the most scientifically interesting part of the book is Crick’s recollections on the theoretical and experimental efforts by him and a small group of colleagues to decipher the genetic code, and on his formulation of the famous “central dogma”. Crick recounted in detail the thinking behind the work and many mistakes he and others had made along the path of discovery. We can see how a brilliant mind works in front of scientific mysteries. It is also of interest to note that the theme of “lessons and mistakes” permeates throughout the book. (The book opens with a quote of Oscar Wilde “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes”). This had also become the recurrent theme in his later years when he was asked to talk about his molecular biology days. Crick was probably the most distinguished theorist in the history of modern biology, and he had much to say about how theoretical work could be most fruitfully pursued in biology. In his later years at Salk Institute in La Jolla, he focused his attention on the mystery of the brain, e.g., the mechanism of memory, the purpose of dreaming, and the neurobiological basis of consciousness. (Only the last chapter of this book deals with these later works). Consciousness is the subject of his last book “The Astonishing Hypothesis”, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in neuroscience. He was writing his last paper on consciousness during his final days on his death bed (he died in 2005 at an age of 89). I had a quite a few opportunities to meet Crick during my time at UCSD during 1996-2000. He had a sharp mind that could quickly identify key points and problems, but had very little tolerance for superficiality.

4. The Double Helix, by James Watson (W.W. Norton & Company, 1968)


This is a fascinating scientific story on how Watson and Crick discovered the double helix structure of the DNA. When this book was first published in 1968, I was then a physics student at Tsinghua University in Hsinchu campus in Taiwan and was the first to check out the volume from the university library. It may have contributed to my interest in biology and my later switch to biophysics in the graduate school. This was a book that had offended many of Watson’s contemporaries and colleagues, because of his egocentric view of the events and people related to the discovery of the double helix. Watson made no attempt to hide his feelings and thoughts and presented an honest self-portrait in this book. His book also nicely reflected the atmosphere in the Cavendish Laboratory in the early 1950s, where major ideas in modern biology emerged among a small group of scientists chatting over a cup of tea.  His latest biography “Avoid boring (other) people” is also very much worth reading. It recounts his scientific life before and after the discovery of DNA and contains summary of useful “lessons” at the end of each chapter – lessons he learned at each stage of his career.

5. A Passion for Science, by Lewis Wolpert (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988)


Lewis Wolpert has been one of the most prominent developmental biologists in the United Kingdom. He was responsible for formulating the concept of “positional information” in developing organisms. The present book is a collection of interviews he conducted with a group of distinguished scientists from diverse fields. As a distinguished scientist himself, the questions Wolpert raised were thoughtful, perceptive and penetrating. The responses by the scientists are often inspiring. In the beginning of the interview, each scientist also gave a summary of the personal history that shaped his/her career in science. I particularly enjoyed the interview with Sydney Brenner.

6. A Feeling for the Organism: The life and work of Barbara McClintock, by Evelyn F. Keller, W. H. Freeman and Company (1983)


Keller is currently a professor at MIT with research interests in sociology and philosophy of science, and history of biology, although she had extensive early research experience in mathematical biology. This biography of McClintock has become a classic among scientific biographies. Keller had not only written about the life and science of this remarkable woman scientist, but also addressed broader issues, e.g., how scientists interact with their peers and how they are perceived and received by the scientific community at large. Relating to McClintock’s discovery of transposable elements or “jumping genes”, which eventually won her a Nobel Prize as a solo, Keller also touched upon the interesting issues of why and how a ground-breaking discovery and a brilliant scientist could be ignored by the scientific community for decades. How does one distinguish a pioneering scientist from someone “at the fringe”? How personality and style of a scientist affect the recognition of his/her science by the scientific community? For all female scientists and scientists to be, this book is particularly relevant. Societal prejudice and discrimination against female scientists, which remains a universal problem, also played a significant part in the delayed recognition of McClintock and her work. Keller has insightful comments on this topic.

7. Is Science Necessary? by Max Perutz (Oxford University Press, 1991)

Max Perutz (1914-2002) was an Austrian biologist who immigrated to UK during the Second World War. His work on protein crystallography and the solution of 3-D structure of hemoglobin at the atomic resolution won him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1962. He joined Cavendish Laboratory as a young man and was assigned the task of solving the 3-D structure of proteins by X-ray crystallography, at a time when this method was only used for solving the structure of small molecules and fibrous macromolecules. It took twenty years for him to achieve the goal. This book is a collection of essays he wrote over the years on scientists and science, and on science-related books. There are many interesting stories and witty comments by this pioneer of modern biology. Perutz had served for many years as the Head of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. This Laboratory is a “biological successor” of the Cavendish Laboratory and now a leading biological and biomedical research institution, from which so many Nobel Prize winners had emerged that I have lost count.

8. Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History, by Stephen Jay Gould (W.W. Norton, 1979)


Stephen J. Gould (1941-2002) was a prolific and eloquent evolutionary biologist at Harvard. He wrote one long assay each month for a column (“This View of Life”) in the magazine Natural History for twenty-five years without missing a single issue, even during the time he was struggling with cancer. His had done interesting research on the evolution of snails and taught a very popular undergraduate science course at Harvard, but he is best known for the science books he published over the years. These include monographs on specific subjects (see “The Mismeasure of Man”) and a series of books that contain organized collections of his articles in Natural History. “Ever Since Darwin” is the first and perhaps the best one of the series. Gould’s writings cover evolutionary biology, geology, scientists, and history of science. He had an unusual ability in retaining, connecting and organizing information gathered from diverse fields and sources, including ancient literature written in Latin and European languages. He appeared to have an unlimited reservoir of interesting stories and wrote with a distinct style that is exuberant and imaginative as well as logical and precise. He died on July 31, 2002, after finishing his 300th assay for Natural History (for the January issue of 2001). The last collection of his assays was published in a book entitled “I Have Landed”. Right before his death (due to cancer) he also finished a huge treatise on “The Structure of Evolutionary Theory”, a grand summary of his view on evolution. What an amazing life! Gould is legendary in the intellectual history of 20th century, not necessarily as a scientist (he was responsible for proposing the somewhat controversial hypothesis of “punctuated equilibrium”, which addresses the uneven pace of evolutionary changes), but certainly as a teacher and thinker who had greatly influenced a generation of intellectuals beyond the narrow confine of his own field.

9. It Ain’t Necessarily So: The Dream of Human Genome and Other Illusions, by Richard Lewontin (New York Review Books, 2001)


This is a collection of Lewontin’s essays, mostly published in the New York Review on Books, on evolutionary biology, genetics, more recently on issues related to the Human Genome Project. The NYRB is a biweekly journal on books, with book reviews that are written in the form of long essays. It has become a platform on which issues and subjects are frequently debated among academic intellectuals. Lewontin is a professor of genetics at Harvard and a progressive Marxist biologist. He emerged in the 1980s as the most eloquent spokesman for a group of scientists who strongly oppose the view that human behaviors are largely determined by our genes. There were heated debates surrounding the popularized sociobiologist’s view of Edward Wilson, who had tried to apply the lessons learned from studying social behavior of ants to human behaviors. Lewontin argued forcefully for the importance of examining the interaction and interdependence between genes and environment when studying complex biological phenomena. This book contains his essays triggered by the books he reviewed, and exchanges with opponents following the publication of his original essays. In my view, Lewontin’s arguments have become increasingly relevant following the completion of the Human Genome Project. There is now the resurgence of the “eugenic” view, i.e., all normal and pathological behaviors are based on the genetic makeup of a person. There are now genes claimed to be responsible for homosexuality, suicidal tendency, longevity, aggression and other social behaviors. There are in fact reputable scientists who are actively propagating the naïve and misleading message that a single gene could “determine” a particular social behavior. While we might suspect that Lewontin had deliberately positioned himself towards the extreme end of a wide spectrum of opinions, his words are refreshing, provocative, and persuasive. Ideology asides, there is little doubt that he is a very effective writer. If you want to find a model for learning scientific writing, use Lewontin as a model. 

10. The Mismeasure of Man, by Stephen Jay Gould (W.W. Norton & Company, 1981)

《人类的误测(智商歧视的科学史)》 斯蒂芬·杰伊·古尔德

This is the best book on the subject of IQ and human intelligence. What is intelligence? Can it be quantified by a single parameter like IQ? Are there intrinsic racial and gender differences in intellectual capacity? Is the evidence of the claimed differences credible? These are not questions that can be resolved simply by sophisticated debates. Gould himself had carried out systematic reinvestigation and measurements of a collection of human skulls of different races in a Philadelphia museum, the same set of skulls Samuel Morton (a prominent American scientist in the 19th century) had used to publish his influential paper claiming that the cranial capacity increases from blacks to Indians to Caucasian (whites). Gould found that Morton’s analysis was systematically biased and his conclusion was thus false. There is also an in-depth analysis of the studies on identical twins by Cyril Burt, the infamous former doyen of British psychology, who was found to have fabricated most of this data on identical twins. On the whole, Gould’s analysis of human intelligence, although by no means generally accepted, is the best I have seen. Here I have to say that many of my Chinese friends (offspring of the “Great Han”!), including highly intelligent scientists, often express racist views that have a shallow basis and could not stand against scientific scrutiny. Speaking of social responsibilities, biologists have the utmost obligation to promote a scientifically correct view of human nature among the general populace and to fight against half-truths and misconceptions about human intelligence and behavior. After reading this book, I believe you will have a very different view on IQ and human intelligence and perhaps talk differently when this subject comes up again in your conversation with others. 

11. Time, Love, Memory, by Jonathan Weiner (Random House Publication, 1999)

中文版:《时间·爱·记忆》乔纳森·维纳(注:这是Seymour Benzer的传记)

Weiner is the science writer and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize on science writing (for the book “The Beak of the Finch”, a wonderful book that combines science with scientific biography of two evolutionary biologists), and currently teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. In this book, he describes the life and work of Seymour Benzer (1921-2007), a geneticist at Caltech, and the work of some of his students. After finishing the mapping of the fine structure of a phage DNA in the late 1960s, a monumental achievement that could qualify him for a Nobel Prize, Benzer decided that neurobiology is the next big challenge to take. He proposed that one approach to understanding how the brain works is to search for the genetic basis of behavior through discovery of behavior mutants in fruit flies. The field he created, known as neurogenetics, is now highly populated. There are at least four generations of Drosophila neurogeneticists with lineage traceable to Benzer. There have been many amazing discoveries made through Benzer’s approach. Who would have thought that a single gene mutation (of “period” gene) could result in drastic change in the sleep-awake cycle of Drosophila, a rather complex behavior? (Such successes in Drosophila, unfortunately, have created the illusion that complex behaviors of all species, including human, are dictated by genes). This book vividly portraits Benzer as a scientist working at the lab bench even at the age over 70. When I first met him in 1977 at Caltech, two back-to-back Nature articles just appeared – one by Lionel Jaffe on the theoretical prediction and analysis of electrophoresis of proteins in cell membrane and the other by Ken Robinson and me on the experimental demonstration of the electrophoretic movement of membrane receptors in muscle cells. The first thing Benzer did when he saw me was to point to these two articles and said “Is this real? Did you check Jaffe’s math?” Benzer did not believe easily published results and himself published very little. Every one of his papers was meticulously written, with every sentence heavily scrutinized before submission. My friend Chun-fang Wu (the current Editor-in-Chief of Neurogenetics) was a postdoctoral fellow in Benzer’s lab in the late 70s. He told me that everyone in the Benzer lab had to sit around a table for hours to go through every sentence of each paper to be submitted from the lab, regardless whether you were one of the authors. In my last encounter with him at Society for Neuroscience dinner reception for Benzer as the 2004 Gruber Prize winner, I gave a brief talk as a member of the Prize Committee. Benzer was very pleased by my comment that his paper writing ritual is now in constant practice by many laboratories at Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai.

12. Cantor’s Dilemma by Carl Djerassi (Penguin Books, 1989)


Carl Djerassi, the prominent Stanford chemist who invented the oral contraceptive and became the Father of the “Pill”, turns out to be a literary man as well. By writing a series of novels based on scientists and their lives, he invented a new genre of literature that he named as “science in fiction”. It is distinctly different from “science fiction” in that the content is based on credible or plausible science, even real names of scientists are referred to and their discoveries discussed in the novel. “Cantor’s Dilemma” is the first of four books of science in fiction he wrote, and in my opinion, the best one. The main character Cantor is a distinguished professor and cancer biologist.  He hit upon a novel mechanism of tumorigenesis while going to the hotel bathroom on one of his lecturing trips. He rushed back to his lab, asked his postdoctoral fellow to perform the experiment and verified his hypothesis. The achievement shook the cancer field and soon won him a Nobel Prize. Unfortunately, the experimental results by his postdoctoral fellow cannot be replicated by the laboratory of another distinguished competitor at Harvard. Even more devastating, he discovered that his postdoctoral fellow, under extreme pressure to confirm his hypothesis, actually fabricated the data that won him the Nobel Prize. Should Cantor now announce to the world that his achievement and fame were based on fabricated data?  How could he ever solve the dilemma?  Read this book and find out.