By Steve Pointing 07/07/2017

Here are the top three readings that have inspired me in science. What do you think? What are your favourite articles?  

#3 Endolithic microorganisms in the Antarctic cold desert

by Imre Friedmann

Emperor Penguins huddling together in Antarctica.
I was truly fortunate to work briefly with Imre Friedmann when he was at NASA Ames Research Center. Friedmann was responsible for inspiring a whole generation of scientists by describing microbes that cling to life inside rocks in the most extreme deserts imaginable, such as Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys as described in this 1982 science paper. (Science vol. 215, p1045-1053).  Imre championed the notion of using these microbes as analogues for potential life on the surface of Mars, and was highly influential in guiding early theories in the relatively new field of astrobiology. His work was continued and elevated by Chris McKay at NASA Ames and I am proud to be part of the wider ‘family tree’ they have both developed. I was lucky to spend 5 seasons in Antarctica adding my humble contribution to the understanding of extreme microbial life in Antarctica.

#2 Towards a natural system of organisms: proposal for the domains archaea, bacteria and eucarya

by Carl Woese, M Kandler and M Wheelis
This 1990 paper in PNAS (vol. 87, p 4576-4579) solidified a theory that was first put forward by Carl Woese and George Fox in 1977 (PNAS, vol. 74, p5088-5090). Woese and his colleagues used ribosomal DNA evidence to demonstrate that the ‘prokaryotes’ were in fact two evolutionarily distinct groups now known as the archaea and bacteria. I would argue that for any life scientist this has to rank alongside Watson and Crick’s description of DNA and the genetic code as the most important paper in our field as it essentially defines the entire tree of life as we know it today. It is sad that Woese was treated pretty harshly by his peers and the science press for several years although he was later bestowed many awards and medals reflecting his contribution.  I think it is a great shame he was never made a Nobel Laureate for his work.

 #1 The Lorax

by Dr Seuss
Don’t be fooled by the ‘Dr’ bit, because Theodore Seuss Geisel wasn’t a scientist. However to me he was the most influential writer that inspired me to become a scientist. When I was young, the Dr Seuss books were wildly popular with kids. I loved the rhyming prose and the beautiful languid brush strokes and bold colours in the artwork (he illustrated the books too).  Most of you have probably heard of The Cat in the Hat and The Grinch but The Lorax was something else!  He was a small and rather gruff creature that ‘spoke for the trees’ and tried to convince the Once-ler of his folly in destroying the environment to create more and more thneeds – for which you can read handphones, cars or plastic toys.  I remember getting this book in the early 1970s and I still have it, and read it to my son and my nieces and nephews – and anyone else who will listen. It’s a wonderful and powerful message about how we need to value the natural world over mindless consumerism before it’s too late. Incidentally The Lorax was one of several Dr Seuss books with a really strong moral behind the story. Obviously this was one of environmentalism and anti-consumerism, but others such as The Sneetches tackled racial equality and Horton Hears a Who has a strong message about isolationism and internationalisation. I reckon a compulsory reading list of Dr Seuss books might be a good idea for every policymaker out there!

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