The Song of the Cell: An exploration of medicine and the new human
I’ve spent more than thirty years studying cells of various types. First cells like those that make up human bodies (and their misbehaving counterparts—cancer cells) and now bacterial cells. It’s not at all difficult for me to tap my inner Miss Frizzle, hop on the Magic School Bus, and take a ride to the inside a cell. It’s easy for me to picture ribosomes translating mRNA in the cytosol above my head, imagine importins carrying proteins through nuclear pores, and signal transduction cascades activating one protein after another like dominos falling. While I am familiar with the vivid molecular details, I know that visualizing those molecular details, much less cells, is not easy for most non-scientists. I believe that in spite of this, many people carry some curiosity about how cells work. Perhaps this curiosity arises when they encounter a disease or diagnosis, when something goes wrong with their bodies, or simply when they ponder the wonders of the natural world. At least I hope this is true. If you are someone who wonders about cells but thinks it would take too much time and effort to learn about them, The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human is a book for you.
The author, Siddhartha Mukherjee, is an Associate Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology and Oncology at Columbia University where he is an oncologist and researcher, specializing in the physiology of cancer cells, stem cells in bone, and immunological therapy for cancers of the blood, such as leukemia and lymphoma. He is a prolific author with scientific publications in Nature and The New England Journal of Medicine, as well as the author of this and three other books for lay audiences. Mukherjee’s first book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. His second book, The Gene: An Intimate History, was a New York Times bestseller. Mukherjee’s success as a popular nonfiction writer is not surprising. He has an uncanny ability to make complicated scientific processes accessible without sacrificing beauty, complexity, or accuracy. He is a master storyteller, especially gifted at using metaphors to help non-scientists picture and understand the inner workings of cells and other complicated biological processes.
What made this book especially compelling for me (and for my Cell Biology students, to whom I assigned the book last semester) was how Mukherjee was able to weave together basic cell biology with touching stories of patients who were dealing with cellular diseases as well as how our current understanding of how cells work was being used and applied to treat his patients—sometimes with seemingly miraculous outcomes and sometimes with heartbreaking disappointment. He explores cancer, infertility, heart disease, bacterial and viral infections, autoimmune disease, depression, and organ/tissue transplantation in this nearly 400-page book. Despite its length, it reads quickly—perhaps because Mukherjee carefully intersperses history and complex science with personal stories of researchers, patients, and his own research.
In Emperor of All Maladies and The Gene, I found Mukherjee’s presentation of the science a bit too linear, giving the impression that one discovery led neatly to the next and then the next. As a scientist who spent ten years studying cancer cell biology and genetics, I know too well that the path to understanding how cells, cancer cells in particular, is laden with failures, misinterpretations, and mistakes. We zig-zag toward understanding much more than we take a straight path to it. In this book, Mukherjee makes more room for the missteps, arguments, and biases that shape scientific advances as much as the successes and collaborations, presenting what seemed to me a truer picture of how science actually works.
I didn’t need much encouragement to read this book but why should a non-scientist pick it up? think this book helps a non-scientist to better appreciate the crooked path science takes toward understanding whatever it is they are studying. Readers will come away with a better understanding of how cells work and why sometimes the cells in our bodies fail. A deeper understanding of cells generates better questions when faced with health issues, greater appreciation of the available treatments and those who work to develop those treatments. Most importantly, I think readers will come away with a new level of awe at the wonder of God’s good creation and a deeper reason to worship the author of these wonder-filled, smallest units of life we call cells.
Sara Sybesma Tolsma, PhD is Professor of Biology at Northwestern College, Orange City, IA. She is currently working to discover novel bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria) and characterize their genomes.