A skillful memoir and account of groundbreaking research by the winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in chemistry.
Ramakrishnan—the senior scientist at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge and president of the Royal Society in London—arrived in the United States in 1971 and obtained a doctorate in theoretical physics, but then he lost interest and devoted his life to biology. The author won his prize for his role in determining the structure of the ribosome. Anyone who has taken high school biology knows that the DNA inside each cell guides the assembly of small molecules into huge ones—proteins—that make up every living creature. DNA, discovered in the 1860s, is simple; in the 1950s, learning how it worked jump-started a revolution in biology. Protein assembly occurs in the ribosome, which is complex. Each cell contains millions. Soon after it was first observed in 1955, scientists sought to learn more. Years after joining their efforts, Ramakrishnan realized that “after forty years of trying to solve how ribosomes work by chemical methods alone,” it was impossible “without a more detailed knowledge of the structure.” Working mostly through X-ray crystallography, he and his lab staff gradually teased out its precise makeup. Rewards and fame—mostly within the scientific community—followed. The author also delivers a portrait of the ribosome that will satisfy even undemanding readers. Very few will understand his explanation of crystallography, but it doesn’t matter. Readers will accept that it’s a maddeningly difficult technique as they take in a vivid description of 20 years of frustration, tedium, and improvisation as he slowly approached his goal. An entertaining account of a peripatetic career, academic infighting, and the colorful, charismatic, or eccentric mentors, colleagues, and competitors the author encountered as well as an often cynical view of the scientific establishment.