A century after Albert Einstein upset conventional thinking about time and space, a reprint of the 1920 English translation of his Relativity: The Special and General Theory (Pi, $19.95) entices with its scholarly packaging. An introduction by Roger Penrose, an emeritus professor of mathematics at Oxford University, provides the scientific context, from throughout Einstein's life until well past his death in 1955; commentary by Robert Geroch, a physics professor at the University of Chicago, analyzes Einstein's text, section by section; and an essay by David C. Cassidy, a professor of natural science at Hofstra University and an authority on Einstein and other scientific luminaries, details the impact of Einstein's theories on war, literature and art.
Any student of history can appreciate the revolutionary nature of Einstein's ideas, but readers will also have to grasp the branch of mathematics called group theory if they hope to comprehend Einstein in his own words. Yet he begins with analogies whose elements feel familiar enough: a moving train, an embankment, a traveler inside the train. Describing the movement of one relative to another, he unfolds the principles developed by others and upon which he built. It's as though you are sitting in his classroom, watching him alternate between gesticulating and chalking equations onto the blackboard.
If the thought of having a volume that evokes such a thrill makes you reach for your wallet, you'll probably appreciate this book. If higher math makes you strain like a first-grader who needs glasses, you won't.
-- Susan P. Williams
Richard Rapport is the tour guide for a rewarding look into the lives of two scientists, Spain's Santiago Ramon y Cajal and Italy's Camillo Golgi, and their divergent quests to determine how brain cells communicate. Throughout Nerve Endings: The Discovery of the Synapse (Norton, $23.95), Rapport tugs at the imagination and relates each man's odyssey to other scientific and political goings-on of the time.
"In the summer of 1964 . . . I first saw a neuron myself," Rapport writes. "That is, I saw its corpse, stained with silver and laid out like a branching tree felled onto a glass slide." Rapport, a neurosurgeon who lives in Seattle, notes his own role in investigating the chemical means by which neurons -- nerve cells -- pass along messages.
Today we know that neurons end in a synapse, the gap between one nerve cell and the next. But in the late 19th century, nerve endings were the subject of an intellectual feud between those, such as Cajal, who believed in gaps and those, such as Golgi, who believed that nerves were all joined in a network, or reticulum.
Rapport acknowledges that the terms these scientists used are confusing, especially since such terms were just being coined and were repeatedly tweaked as the gap theory was accepted. His gentle repetitions may keep the reader from having to keep one finger anchored in the glossary at the end of the book.
Golgi rightfully gets credit for developing the basic silver stain that allowed scientists to observe cells through the light microscope, the best technology of the day for studying the structure of tissue. Cajal, who not only improved staining but also made huge strides with his physiological discoveries, is depicted here as having gotten little or no credit during an age when scientific papers from Spain -- if they were translated at all -- drew scant notice in comparison with the work being done in Italy, Germany, France and England.
Rapport connects enthusiasms of Cajal's boyhood -- his classification of birds, fascination with explosives and compulsion to sketch and, later, take photographs -- and shows them maturing in the scientist: his allegiance to observation, his experimentation with chemical stains and slide-making, his talent for drawing cells.
Similarly, Rapport traces Golgi's early life as a model student wistfully hoping for his father's attention and details the scientist's growing bitterness over what he saw as a lack of acknowledgment. Golgi's stubbornness in clinging to his now-discounted network theory, even as he accepted his half of a 1906 Nobel Prize, contrasts with the humility of his co-winner, Cajal, who accurately determined the structure of the human nervous system.
-- Susan P. Williams
Books that reconsider the lives and works of great scientists often invite historical revisionism by shifting weight from the scientists' achievements to the personalities and motivations underlying their work. In The Geneticist Who Played Hoops with My DNA . . . and Other Masterminds from the Frontiers of Biotech (Morrow, $25.95), journalist David Ewing Duncan inverts this process, exploring the personalities and motivations of researchers now operating at the cutting edge of headline-making science involving stem cells, cloning, bioengineering and genetics. The geneticist of the title is Iceland's Kari Stefansson, with whom Duncan shares a one-on-one basketball game and a personal DNA analysis.
Duncan argues that personality plays a pivotal role in what scientists do. Not content to merely profile these prominent researchers, he connects each one to a figure from literature, history or mythology. The idea, he writes, is not to argue that people such as Craig Venter (Faustus) or James Watson (Zeus) are gods or demigods but to see their work -- leading up to the sequencing of the human genome and beyond -- "through the lens of stories, myths, and characters that have endured for centuries as devices to understand and absorb the import of major moments in human history." The connections work well enough as allusions, particularly in the cases of the entrepreneurial Venter and the imperious Watson, but this device is not entirely successful. For one thing, it's hard to write intimate portraits about people stuck on pedestals.
But Duncan's linking of biological science to myths and legends does guide the reader to the figure whose tale overhangs his account of the promise and peril inherent in this march of progress: Victor Frankenstein.
-- Gregory Mott
In 1993, Kay Redfield Jamison's Touched With Fire linked manic-depressive illness to the tortured souls of many major artists. Now another Johns Hopkins psychiatry professor, John D. Gartner, offers a similar perspective on high achievers in other fields. In The Hypomanic Edge (Simon & Schuster, $26), Gartner doesn't quite say that mental illness is an asset in building a nation. But his book's subtitle does indicate how far he's willing to go: "The Link Between (a Little) Craziness and (a Lot of) Success in America."
Gartner glides out onto the thin ice of psychiatric diagnosis to draw a line between hypomania -- recognized in his profession by such markers as inflated self-esteem, a decreased need for sleep and episodes of risky behavior -- and its far more dangerous cousin, mania. He then argues, not very persuasively, that America has long been overloaded with adventurous, messianic, entrepreneurial, charismatic leaders -- and that this bounty of boldness emerges from an immigrant-heavy gene pool rich with hypomanic tendencies.
"It's in our blood" to climb every mountain, writes Gartner, who illustrates his thesis with short biographies of such overachievers as Columbus, Alexander Hamilton and Andrew Carnegie. None of these figures was ordinary, of course, but saying that they all were genetically wired to be larger than life is a stretch.
The Hypomanic Edge becomes unsettling when it moves from historical figures to living examples of the author's thesis. In a chapter portraying the founding families of Hollywood as rife with hypomania -- and with psychological tics, both ugly and sad -- Gartner writes of his interview with an aging member of the Selznick and Mayer clans. To read of this person "fighting back tears" and being asked to describe "how the family genes had manifested in his life" makes one wish that Gartner had guarded the man's privacy more carefully. The book simply didn't need to address how this man is coping with his family history of mental illness.
The final bio is even more creepy, as Gartner uses interviews with geneticist Craig Venter (see previous review) to deliver "insight into his biology." The maverick scientist -- who offended peers by using his own DNA, not material from more representative sources, to sequence the human genetic code -- tells Gartner of his longtime "delusions of grandeur" and his near-suicide while stationed in Danang during the Vietnam War. "It was an energizing experience," according to Venter, who adds that he probably has "a very mild case of manic depression." With such tales and self-diagnoses, Gartner is exposing a fascinating, volatile personality, but he's hardly revealing Venter's biology. Even a not-quite-crazy person deserves protection from a psychiatrist with a theory to prove. *
-- Tom Graham
The reviewers are editors at The Washington Post, working on science, health and national news.