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A 40-ish publisher (editor, project manager, etc.), husband, and father of an even number of offspring, I grew up, or failed to, reading fantasy and sci-fi. I still enjoy reading, and now am trying to write. My favorite books include YA fantasy, manga, biography, and advice to authors. I'm also a former history major/grad student/high school teacher and assessment writer. Now I work for a school supplement publisher, specializing in high-low chapter books. I spend a lot of my time controlling reading levels. At night, I cut loose and use long words. W00t!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Dorothy Hodgkin: a life, by Georgina Ferry

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin seems like the kind of person who merits duelling biographers, Every page of Ferry's dully titled, well-ordered, and crisply phrased seemed packed with Hodgkin's own energy. From a young age, Dorothy Hodgkin, born Crowfoot, seems to have been working at an accelerated rate, driven by curiosity and enabled by intellect and good fortune (her encouraging and liberal family, her family's fortuitous financial circumstances, the contacts and possibilities presented to her), she left her biographer the happy task of way too much to write about at once.

I felt at times an unhappy comparison with my own accomplishments, or more precisely, with my own drive.

Hodgkin (1910-1994) is principally famous for mapping the structure and composition of a few major organic molecules, especially penicillin, vitamin B12, and human insulin. She did this through a field of physical chemistry I had not understood at all prior to reading Ferry's account, x-ray crystallography.

The process involves triggering crystal formation in the target molecule (I really have no sense how this is done), isolating crystals of it, firing x-rays through the crystals, and catching the refractions on photographic paper. The crystal is turned a number of times and new refractions captured. Careful analysis of the patterns leads to testable hypotheses in some cases, and with numerous follow-ups, even complex molecules can be mapped - not only the composition understood, but the locations of atoms, and even arrangements of electrons. Considering the finesse of the task, or the stark differences proceeding from small chemical changes, this is quite a difficult and a useful endeavor.

Hodgkin was also notably a magnet, a catalyst, a principal cause. She should be equally famous for her ability to charm and convince people to give her, and other scientists, often women or non-Europeans, opportunities. She broke (and trampled to dust) several barriers, or stormed the walls with the first wave (she was the third woman inducted into the Royal Society). Once established, she made her laboratory a site of cross-pollenization, a platform for unattached scientists, and the development of new ideas. Her own work and the work she inspired, supported, and often (later) funded, opened up fields of inquiry.

This brings me to my motivation in reading this dense and informative decade-old biography. I was trying, and I failed, to find the source of a quotation I'm probably misremembering. It may go like this,
The value of a good bit of work is that it inspires imitation, and is soon eclipsed.
To me, that encapsulates quite well the attitude of the Nobel Laureate Hodgkin. I began to be interested in her story principally to check this quotation. Having now, finally, finished reading the book, I can't say I'm much closer.

However, I have enjoyed reading what feels like intellectual history raiding the land of biography.

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