Bruce Alberts on Writing Science Textbooks: "Molecular Biology of the Cell"
  Bruce Alberts     Biography    
Recorded: 22 Aug 2008

Well when we first published Molecular Biology of the Cell in 1982, that was after starting the book in 1978. It was a lot of work! And like everything else I’ve done, it took a long time to learn how to do it. But we had a view, I think we expressed it in the preface of that 1st edition, that as we’d learn more and more about the cell what seems confusing now will become more simple. In the last edition we quoted that-last edition was this year, actually, late last year. We quoted that and said we’re no longer so sure that the more we know it’s becoming more and more simple. Because the chemistry as I said is incredibly complicated and it’s nothing like any other chemistry we know. And it’s a great intellectual challenge to try to understand the cell. Of course if it wasn’t that complicated we couldn’t be having this conversation. So the fantastic chemistry is what makes intelligent life possible.

So when we started working on this book in 1978 and we had you know…Jim, as usual, incredibly optimistic. We’re only going to have to work on it…So I got this phone call, I guess it was the spring of 1978 -- We’ve already farmed out all these chapters for people to draft. And all you have to do is work for two summers. The first summer we’d just, you know, each of us would write a chapter. And the next summer we’d edit everybody else’s stuff and be done. So it, it was the second summer of ’79 when, you know, we suddenly realized how hard this was. And we were, I think you worked for two months straight in Cold Spring Harbor at a mansion called Fort Hill. We hardly ever left the place. And I still remember at the end of that summer being so exhausted because we were working all the time and producing things that weren’t working. And at that point we could’ve well dropped the whole project. It was only like privates in the Army - the authors had been together for so many long periods of suffering we owed it to each other to keep going. But I still remember getting back to UCSF that fall, and I was, it took me like two months to recover. I was just totally, mentally, exhausted! Sort of the same way everything I’ve done. I mean I still remember the first year I was an assistant professor at Princeton, and the first faculty meeting. I said - this is impossible, I can’t understand how this works! You know, I guess the same thing in the first year at the Academy was horrible.So it’s a good lesson for young people basically. You have to know when to persist and when to not persist. And I guess I would, based on my experience, I would try for at least a year everything very hard. Everything sort of got better after the first year for me. And I hope this happens at Science Magazine, I’m not sure yet. But the first year is very much a learning experience and also getting to know all the people, to know how to deal with them and know how to solve problems. Because you can’t solve problems in a vacuum. You’ve gotta solve them in the enterprise that you’re in. You have to bring people along. So that takes a long time. And writing a textbook was really trying to-we all knew how to write scientific papers, but writing a textbook is quite different. So it took us a long time to learn how to do it so it was acceptable. The hardest part about writing a textbook is leaving out things. Leaving out the 99% of what we know to get to the central concepts. And it gets harder every edition because we know more and more.

Bruce Alberts, currently Editor-in-chief of Science, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysic at the University of California and United States Science Envoy. He received A.B. (1960) in Biochemical Science from Harvard College, Cambridge, Massachusetts and Ph.D. (1965) from Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1966 he joined Department of Chemistry at the Princeton University and after 10 years he became professor and vice chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysic at the UCSF.

Alberts work is best known for his work on the protein complexes that allow chromosomes to be replicated. He is one of the authors of The Molecular Biology of the Cell, a major textbook in the field. He served two-six years terms as a president of National Academy of Science (1993-2005). During his administration at NAS, he was involved in developing the landmark of National Science Education standards.

Among many honors and awards (16 honorary degrees), he is Co-chair of the InterAcademy Council and a trustee of Gordon and Betty Moore Fundation.

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