As the Guardian reports, Horace Freeland Judson (b. 1931), an American writer on the history of science, has died at the age of eighty. Among his books was a classic, The Eighth Day of Creation (1979), a history of molecular genetics. It is simply spellbinding: the best popular book on molecular biology I’ve ever read, and one of the best of all books on modern biology. It begins with the classic work of Avery, MacLeod and McCarty at the Rockefeller Institute on the “transforming principle” in bacteria, showing that DNA was almost certainly the genetic material, and then proceeds through the work of Hershey and Chase, Lederberg and Lederberg, Meselson and Stahl (whose proof of the semiconservative replication of DNA I consider, along with others, as the most beautiful experiment in all biology), Watson and Crick’s elucidation of DNA structure, the discovery and unraveling of the triplet code, the operon, and so on. It’s a lively, extremely well-written book, full of colorful characters, that anybody with an interest in biology should read.
Buy it or take it out of the library, but read it now. You won’t regret it. The Guardian says:
A part of The Eighth Day of Creation was originally published by the New Yorker in 1978, and the full, 600-page text is still in print. It was immediately recognised as a classic, in part because it was the first complete record of a giant intellectual achievement. The physicist Jeremy Bernstein wrote in the New York Times Book Review: “I finished the book with a great sense of elation and a deepened admiration for what the human family, at its best, can accomplish.”
His other books, while creditable, never achieved the standard of Eighth Day, but that is enough for a lifetime.
One cultural note from Judson’s life:
For seven years, during the height of the counterculture, he [Judson] travelled around Europe, seeing plays and attending exhibitions. He interviewed John Lennon, Samuel Beckett and others, among them Bob Dylan, during the singer’s 1965 tour of Britain. He endured a tirade from Dylan against Time (and squareness in general) that has remained a part of pop culture because it was memorably captured in DA Pennebaker’s documentary Don’t Look Back (1967). Horace always dismissed the speech as “contrived”.
Judson is survived by his four children, one of whom, Olivia, is a biologist who until recently wrote a column on evolution for The New York Times.
The Guardian‘s obituary ends:
He was an atheist, and once, at the conclusion of a long dinner, told me that while life (and, by extension, death) was full of surprises, he suspected that, at death, “the machine just stops”. Horace may have stopped, but his great book and its influence go on. In science writing, we are all Judsonians now.
And in skepticism as well.