Lucifer's Legacy. The Meaning of Asymmetry by Frank Close Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK 268 pages, US$ 14.95 019 866267 X
Asymmetry is a daily aspect of the biologist's work, so we have come to accept it without further questioning. But it is indeed interesting to ponder why B‐DNA is right‐handed, why electrons spin in different directions or why there is apparently much more matter than antimatter in the universe. Those who are interested in answers to those questions may like to read Lucifer's Legacy, written by Frank Close, Head of the Theoretical Physics Division at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the UK, and Professor of Physics at the University of Birmingham. But a word of warning: while Close is clearly competent to write about asymmetry in physics, his description of biological examples of asymmetry is lacking in expertise.
For me, the best part of the book consisted of colourful historical overviews of selected aspects of physics from ancient Greece to CERN; so, for this part alone, it was an interesting and enriching read. I was particularly fascinated by the descriptions of discoveries in physics made at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Close made me feel like I was looking over Wilhelm Roentgen's shoulder when, at around midnight on 8 November 1895 in his laboratory in Würzburg, he was testing new cathode ray tubes and was terrified by the unsuspected skeletal image of his own hand on the fluorescence screen. Close then leads us through the rapid chain of events following this discovery. On New Year's Day 1896, Roentgen submitted his manuscript to the Proceedings of the Physical Medical Society of Würzburg (how suitable for the subject and location) and sent drafts to leading physicists in Europe. On 5 January, the popular Viennese journal Die Presse devoted the front page to Roentgen's discovery and published the now famous X‐ray picture of Mrs Roentgen's hand sporting an imposing wedding ring. In Paris, on 24 February 1896, after a few weeks of intensive research precipitated by news of Roentgen's discovery, Henri Becquerel reported to the Academy of Sciences that uranium compounds also emit X‐rays. And medicine was equally quick to propagate this discovery: within a few weeks of Die Presse publishing the first article, medics started to visualise bone fractures using Roentgen's cathode ray tube.
Reading about these events from the fin de siècle, it seems that today's computers and the Internet have had remarkably little impact on the speed of diffusion of scientific ideas. And while some of us may wish to have witnessed these scientific developments personally, others may be glad that this time is over. Today, we would find it very difficult to compete with devoted scientists who stayed in their laboratories until well after midnight, writing scientific papers on New Year's Day and experimenting on their own spouses.
Close provides lively descriptions of many other fundamental discoveries in physics, but we should return here to the subject of the book. Different types of symmetry and the breaking thereof in physics are interestingly described. Concepts of matter and antimatter are splendidly illustrated with illuminating prints by Escher, which I found mesmerising, especially after learning about the mathematical ideas that this Dutch artist had in mind.
I enjoyed the part devoted to physics, where Close is an expert, but unfortunately this was not the case for the biological part. There are many statements that I find very hard to believe and the author's sources are never cited. For instance, Close writes about the mirror‐image effect in monozygotic twins, ‘where one of the pair has physical characteristics that are the reverse of the other […] For example, if one twin has its hair whorl clockwise, the other is anticlockwise’. Without seeing the relevant data I find this statement too extraordinary to believe. My doubts are additionally increased by fundamental errors, such as claims that the right‐handed helicity of DNA is a direct consequence of the left‐handed structure of the amino acids building it. The author is apparently not aware that there are no amino acids in DNA. In addition, the relationship between the handedness of a higher order structure, such as the DNA double helix, is not a simple consequence of specific chirality of basic units: B‐DNA is right‐handed and Z‐DNA is left‐handed, and both contain only right‐handed deoxyribose. My belief in Close's expertise in subjects of right‐ and left‐handedness in biology was finally shattered when he discusses that the helical horns of antelopes and rams spiral in a left‐handed way on the animal's left side and in a right‐handed way on the right side, and presents a photograph of what was supposed to be the representative antelope. In fact, the splendid animal is a ram, not an antelope, and it has a right‐handed helical horn on its left side and a left‐handed helical horn on its right side. There are numerous other mistakes in the biological part, which make me wonder whether a motivated physicist should write about biology. Clearly, Close and Oxford University Press should have asked interested biologists to proofread the relevant biological chapters. Without this, many interesting ideas are simply discredited.
- Copyright © 2001 European Molecular Biology Organization
The author is at the University of Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland. E‐mail: