I’ll just come right out and say it: I think George Johnson’s new book The Cancer Chronicles exemplifies all that is right and good about science writing. It explains centuries of cancer research in an easily digestible form, it entertains with geeky trivia and quirky history along the way, and, most importantly, it engages us as readers in a most human tale.
That Johnson manages to do all of this in almost every paragraph is what pushes me into awe. Please excuse the drooling.
When his then-wife was diagnosed with metastatic endometrial cancer, Johnson, an award-winning journalist who normally covers the physical sciences, decided to learn everything he could about cancer — from quizzing paleo-oncologists tracking it in Egyptian mummies to wandering through scientific posters at a developmental biology meeting. And he invites us along on his journey.
I had the privilege of reviewing the near-final manuscript before Johnson sent it back to his editor. The only time I had for reading was just before bedtime, and I feared my toddler-exhausted self would nod off. My fears were unfounded. I had to force myself to put the tale — as compelling as any fiction book on my nightstand — down each night. It was then, and still is, the best non-fiction I have read since The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine’s Deepest Mystery starts off at a romping good pace in an unlikely venue. Johnson hikes south of Fruita, Colorado, near where the oldest-known example of cancer was found, a metastatic tumor in the hollow of a 150-million-year-old dinosaur bone. The book alternates between the narrative of Johnson’s wife’s medical sojourn through cancer diagnosis and treatment and chapters summarizing what epidemiologists, nutrition experts, environmental scientists, and molecular biologists have learned (or not learned) about cancer. This structure gives me a maximum tolerable dose of emotion or science before switching back.
The book is the most comprehensive layman’s review of cancer research I’ve seen anywhere (no small feat, in itself). But it’s the weaving of Johnson’s personal tales throughout that makes the book a delightful read, even for such a sobering subject. It feels as if I am accompanying a friend on his quest to understand modern medicine’s most vexing foe.
Maybe that’s simply because I know Johnson. But really, I think it’s his ability to slide into fireside storytelling mode even when discussing the discovery of the cancer drug cisplatin, as it was emitted by platinum electrodes in a 1960s petri dish:
Like so many scientific discoveries this one was serendipitous — a foray into one hypothesis veering unexpectedly in another direction, answering questions no one had known to ask. In his laboratory at Michigan State University, Barnett Rosenberg was exploring how cells behaved in the presence of electricity… The means by which a cell divides were poorly understood, and he wondered whether some electromagnetic effect might be involved.
Reducing the problem to simpler terms, he placed two metal electrodes in a dish of single-celled organisms, Escherichia coli, and applied an electrical current. Before long, the bacteria stopped dividing…He turned off the current and the cells began dividing normally again. It was like having his finger on a mitotic on-off switch.
Decades later he still remembered the moment: “God, you don’t often find things like that,” he said. He immediately began thinking about cancer.
That excerpt also exemplifies that old adage of science writing: don’t attempt to write about the field you got your PhD in. Johnson’s background covering particle physics and astronomy gives him a broader perspective as he mucks about in the squishy realm of biology. He brings rich scenes from archeology, physical chemistry and even cosmology with him. Cancer research represents a particular dark forest I often find myself bogged down in, describing patterns of bark instead of the vistas.
Johnson’s beautifully apt analogies don’t hurt either — whether it’s the curious spinthariscope device mimicking the randomness of cancer mutations (read the book) or his fight with invasive tumbleweeds on his New Mexico land.
I tried everything but ionizing radiation to eradicate it. Early in the spring the plants began to appear as tiny bluish-green stars. I learned to recognize them immediately, surgically removing them with a hoe. When that task became overwhelming I burned them with a weed torch… I bought a book on weed science and picked the best chemo — an herbicide called 3,5,6-trichloro-2-pyridinyloxyacetic acid, or triclopyr…
Come spring we anxiously surveyed the land. It seemed clean at first, then patch by patch the little evil stars reappeared and the battle resumed. I began to notice that the seedlings hid from me beneath junipers, crouched almost invisible next to fence posts and rocks. And when I did spot them, just an inch or two high, some of them were already producing seeds—stealthily reproducing before I could stop them. They seem to be adapting to me, evolving before my eyes.
I strive for all these qualities in my own writing — clarifying important biomedical research for readers, beautiful analogies, and suspenseful, page-turning narrative. I’m usually lucky to work a glimmer of one into any piece I write. Maybe if I am as persistent in my writing as Johnson, I might one day achieve his level of elegance.
Until then, I’ll keep The Cancer Chronicles on my bookshelf next to Henrietta within close reach for inspiration.
Image Credit: Knopf