The Molecular Biology of the Cell - Alberts, Johnson et al

Fourth edition, six authors, I guess it must be a pretty standard text. I saw plenty of copies around Cambridge bookshops, so when I saw Galloway and Porter selling this at half price, I thought 'woo-hoo', and bought it. Why the interest in the subject? Well... why not? Cells just seem like very strange machines, running in a way quite different to those I am used to understanding. The chance to understand them, both from the point of view of someone who likes to know how things work, and as a big coordinated pile of cells myself... it intrigued me.

Something like a year, and fourteen hundred and sixty pages later, and I've finished it. The disturbing thing is reading all that, and knowing how much is missing. It's not the author's fault, and indeed this is a very fine introuduction to pretty much everything cells do, but it really does make you realise how much there is to it all, somehow in a way that Hennessy and Patterson's Computer Architecture: A Quantitative Approach, say, doesn't. On the other hand, computers are still way less complex than complex organisms, and the levels of abstraction are far more intertwined, so perhaps this is less unexpected.

My main interest, when I picked the book up, was in learning about the basic mechanism of DNA, RNA and proteins - the 'assembly language' level of cells. Once that magic is working, the rest is housekeeping, I figured. And I suppose in a way it is, but the mechanisms and their ingenuity (and in places, insanity) are compelling. Evolved systems are really incredibly quirky compared to even the oddest of designed systems. The section on multicellular organisms and disease, as viewed from the cellular level, are fascinating.

The presentation of the book is great. It's a subject well-disposed to diagrams, and so the book has literally thousands, ranging from the most schematic to accurate models and photographs. The text is carefully broken up hierarchically, making it far less daunting when it otherwise might be, given the size of the book. It feels like Feynman's Lectures on Physics in that the examples are generally real - there are very few 'hypothetical examples' of molecular interactions, and when they do, they make sure you know. It's not made-up science for education only. When a mechanism is badly understood, they let you know. The authors give a good handle on the developing subject, and really make you understand the amount of work that went into the achievements. Another rather nice feature is that the techniques used in research are explained, so you can understand how knowledge was obtained.

The difficulty in someone like me reviewing this book is that all I know on the subject has come from this book. I have no way of knowing whether it has provided a truthful and accurate representation of the subject! One assumes that after the first few editions, its contents should be pretty uncontroversial. However, despite my lack of knowledge of the ubject, I must say that the organisation and content are great, and if I hadn't already forgotten the start of the book by the time I'd finished it, I'd say the time was well-spent!

Posted 2007-10-14.