Six Degrees of Separation: from Phosphorescence to The Dark Lady of DNA

Yesterday was the first Saturday of March and I really couldn’t think of how to get my Six Degrees of Separation chain started. This month, meme host Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best has chosen Phosphorescence by Julia Baird as our starting book.

I know what this book is about, despite not having read it, but I came unstuck trying to build a chain around the healing power of nature and being in the moment. And then, when I read a couple of other people’s chains, I decided that I couldn’t come up with anything half as good, so I’ve gone random again. The thought that kept popping into my head was the shell grotto in The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock.

The grotto doesn’t phosphoresce exactly, but I recall a description of it glittering. In my mind, this was as a phosphorescent creature glitters. I also thought about what mermaids might have been, which led me to think about sailors of the past and the search for longitude.

Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before is a fictional memoir of a shipwrecked sailor involved in the search for longitude. I have a vivid memory of another character who owned a lot of maps. This made me think about a book I abandoned halfway through.

I love maps and I know Simon Winchester is rated as a popular historian, but boy was The Map that Changed the World dull. It’s very rare that I abandon books, because I’m a stubborn reader, but Winchester’s lack of imagination to fill in the blanks, and lack of sympathy for or sense of William Smith’s personality left me feeling that I hadn’t learnt anything about the “Father of Geology” but knew a lot about the author’s prejudices and presumptions. Geology is something that I’m interested in but not an expert on, and it’s where I’m headed next.

The Dinosaur Hunters by Deborah Cadbury charts the rivalry between Gideon Mantell and Richard Owen. Mantell discovered a mass of ancient bones in a Sussex quarry, but it was anatomist Richard Owen who identified and explained what they were, securing his own fame at Mantell’s expense. Someone else who contributed to our knowledge and understanding of dinosaurs, and who was also unrecognised for her contribution for a long time, is Mary Anning.

Tracy Chevalier wrote a brilliant and human account of Mary Anning’s life and struggles in Remarkable Creatures. I found it moving and thought Chevalier captured the time and place well.

I’m going to end on a book I haven’t read, about another woman whose contribution to a significant piece of scientific understanding has also been overlooked.

Rosalind Franklin: the Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox sounds an interesting biography of the crystallographer whose x-ray photographs and research notes, passed to Watson and Crick without her permission, proved the helical structure of DNA. It’s one that I’ll keep my eyes peeled for next time I’m allowed inside a secondhand bookshop.

This month I’ve travelled from things with natural illumination to a woman obscured by the fragility of the male ego. I’ve jumped from a book about finding awe and wonder during dark times in the world around us to books about the scientific discoveries across time that have helped us to understand the world around, beneath and within us better.

Where would your chain take you? Why not visit Kate’s blog to find out what books other people have chosen?

10 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation: from Phosphorescence to The Dark Lady of DNA

  1. As ever, and intriguing chain from you. At least two other chains mention Umberto Eco, and as The Name of the Rose somehow sits, unread, on our shelves, I’m starting there. Tracy Chevalier is always good value and I don’t know this one. Like you, I can take or leave Simon Winchester, but all your other choices become TBRs for me. In fact I’ve just ordered the Chevalier and the Gowar from our library – as they’re available in-branch for click-and-collect, for free.

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    1. I really enjoyed The Name of the Rose, Margaret – it was the first by him that I read. I also enjoyed Foucault’s Pendulum. I liked the others by him that I’ve read so far, but slightly less than those two.

      The Gowar is a diverting read!

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    1. I did recommend Ghosts on the Shore – I’m glad that you enjoyed it. I agree, the fictionalised elements were a little unusual compared with the travel writing, but I glossed over them. I also enjoyed the diffuseness – the rambling nature of his narrative made me feel as though I was on the journey with him.

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  2. Rosalind Franklin being left out of the whole discovery-of-DNA story is one of my pet peeves! Like you, I waited until the last minute to get started on my list because I had trouble relating at all to the Baird book. I like the way you managed to develop a meaningful chain.

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    1. It’s terrible, isn’t it? The closed shop of academia must have been a nightmare to navigate back then. It’s not easy now, but nothing compared to then. Have you read the Maddox book, Mary?

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  3. Always a great chain from you, Jan; I’ve missed them! You’ve reminded me of Remarkable Creatures and The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. They were must-reads at one point and they’d vanished from thought. Thanks for resurrecting them!

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