I’ve been working on a popular science book about biophysics, writing as well as illustrating it. I’m about three-quarters done, hopefully on track for my contractually obligated completion date later this year. The book isn’t a secret, but I haven’t broadly announced it, nor have I posted a summary. So here it is: an announcement and a summary!
How does life work? I begin with this question, which seems overwhelming at first. Life, after all, manifests itself with awe-inspiring variety and daunting complexity. There are, however, commonalities in the materials from which living things are built and, more profoundly, commonalities in the principles that guide these materials into living forms. Understanding how these materials and principles shape life is the aim of biophysics. The insights of this field, especially in the past few decades, provide a deeply inspiring perspective into the natural world, as well as profound practical benefits. Biophysics, however, is conspicuously absent from the popular science literature. Even the recent proliferation of books on genetics and genetic manipulation are oddly cryptic in their explanations of what genes and proteins are, and what they actually do, making it difficult for the non-expert to make sense of subjects that are both beautiful and immensely important.
Hence, my book. I’ve been keen on conveying the wonders of biophysics to a broad audience for quite a while, and this has motivated things like public lectures, outreach activities, and my “Physics of Life” course for non-science-major undergraduates. A book, however, offers the possibility of being more permanent, deeper, and more comprehensive. Plus, I like books a lot! I’ve worked on this off and on for several years, but really got serious about it two or three years ago. I carefully studied How to write a book proposal, spent a lot of time crafting a query, sent it out to a few literary agents (nowhere near the requisite number), had those few queries rejected, met with an editor at Princeton University Press, and ended up with a book contract from them. In addition to textbooks and works for specialists, Princeton publishes “trade” books, i.e. books for the general public, including one of my favorite pop-science books of recent times, Oliver Morton’s “The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World.”
Who cares? This question doesn’t appear in the book but it’s ever-present in my mind, especially since going through the challenging exercise of writing a book proposal. One of the most difficult realizations that comes from teaching and outreach is that many of the things you find inherently interesting are not that interesting to most people. Looking through a microscope? Boring. Protein folding? Boring. Math? Super-boring. I exaggerate, but the people excited by these sorts of things are a small subset of the people I’d like to reach, in teaching and outreach but especially with this book. I have therefore drawn lots of connections between science and technology, and especially between science and health. Issues of disease, treatment, or simply how we function are of intrinsic interest to a lot of people. It’s not hard to make such connections, from surface tension to the lungs of premature infants, or DNA packaging to birth defects. Most important, however, is the deeper understanding of genetics and its modifications through technology that, I believe, a biophysical perspective gives us. We live in an era in which stunning advances in genetic tools increasingly impact how we interact with plants, animals, and even future children. It’s hard to see how one can make sensible decisions about these tools without understanding not only what a “gene” is, but how genes assemble into circuits, how circuits assemble organisms, and how randomness and predictability coexist in all of us. There’s unfortunately a lot of contemporary popular writing on genetics that’s opaque or even misleading, typically leaning towards moral panic, and I hope to counteract that in ways that will hopefully be useful.
The book is organized into four parts. The first, “The Ingredients of Life,” introduces the building blocks of living things — DNA, proteins, lipid membranes, etc. — focusing especially on how their physical characteristics govern their function. We see why the stiffness of DNA influences its packaging in cells, how proteins and genes interact to form decision-making circuits, and more. We encounter a variety of diseases, learning for example that cannibalism is best avoided if one wants protein folding to proceed normally, and technologies, learning for example that the sharp melting transition of DNA makes possible its routine processing and analysis.
The second part, “Communities of Cells,” examines developing embryos, artificial assemblies such as lab-grown organs, and our internal microbiome, again laying out principles such as pattern formation that guide their construction.
The third part, “Living Large,” explores macroscopic phenomena, especially scaling relationships that dictate that large animals need disproportionately thick bones and that small animals can walk on water. This part ends with a chapter on metabolic scaling — why large animals need fewer calories per kilogram than smaller ones — a messy and contentious topic that, unlike everything else in the book, I don’t want to revisit.
The final part, “Designing Organisms,” gets into the reading and writing of DNA. There’s a lot here about technology, especially the stunning ways in which contemporary DNA sequencing tools make use of the physical character of biological molecules, but also a lot about the nature of what we can, and can’t, learn from these technologies. (It’s this part that I’m presently working on.)
Four themes permeate all of this:
- Self-assembly: The instructions for building with biological components — whether molecules, cells, or tissues — are encoded in the components themselves.
- Regulatory circuits: Within every cell, the wet, squishy building blocks of life assemble into machines that can sense their environment, perform calculations, and make logical decisions
- Predictable Randomness. The physical processes underlying the machinery of life are fundamentally random but, paradoxically, their average outcomes are robust and predictable
- Scaling: Physical forces depend on size and shape in ways that determine the forms accessible to living, growing, and evolving organisms.
I outlined the book and wrote most of the first part before really adopting these themes, and their integration into each chapter still needs improvement. Writing about topics piecemeal is far easier than writing a cohesive book!
From the start, I wanted to make illustrations for the book. I think drawings help convey difficult topics and also, by virtue of their simplicity compared to more complex visualizations, they hint to the reader that these topics are, in fact, comprehensible. Plus, I like to draw. I knew from the start that getting a publisher to agree to color figures could be a problem, but Princeton said “yes.” (I have more illustrations at the moment than they’ve agreed to, however.) The illustrations are a mix of colored pencil, watercolor, and marker. Some are more elaborate, especially proteins — see the top of the post for a rough drawing that doesn’t appear in the book, or this inset of a larger drawing of a kinesin protein:
Some are more schematic, like this one of the conserved (gray) and variable (colored) region of 16S ribosomal RNA:
Illustrating takes a lot of time, but I enjoy it.
My main task, of course, is to actually finish writing the book. Drafts of Parts I-III are done, though there will be sections I revise, and I’m about a quarter done with Part IV. It’s about 50,000 words so far, perhaps 200 pages if formatted normally.
Everyone says that writing a book is a huge amount of work. Everyone is right. The most important, and the most challenging, aspect is writing as minimally as possible — stripping text of jargon or extraneous facts. I constantly ask myself, “Does the reader really need to know that?” Overall, writing has been very enjoyable. I’ve learned a lot, especially about the topics that don’t directly intersect my research like metabolic scaling and genetic engineering. Hopefully the readers will enjoy learning things as well!
If you’d like to get an email when the book is published, or be notified if anything significant changes, you can enter your email address in this form. If we’re connected by Facebook or even Twitter (which I dislike and very rarely post at), you’ll see announcements there. And, of course, I’ll post at this blog!
The CsgG channel protein; colored pencil.
— Raghuveer Parthasarathy, March 5, 2020