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Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Biology of Cancer - Robert A. Weinberg

The Biology of Cancer
I spent the last three weeks reading this textbook, as suggested by one of the members of my committee and have become intimately familiar with it's content. So, it only makes sense for me to do a quick synopsis of this book, to share my opinions on it. (Not that my opinion makes a big difference to the author, I'm sure, but hey, if you're reading my blog, you'll be used to hearing my opinions.)

The first thing I have to say is that this textbook is very well written. It's clear, it's concise, and it explains complex processes very well. On that point alone, I can't see anyone in this field who would find any reason not to keep a copy nearby. This book is now one of two that actually sits out on my book case, within arms reach. (The other is Voet and Voet, Biochemistry - My other textbooks sit in a filing cabinet a few feet away.)

One of the things that impressed me most about this textbook was the CD-Rom in the back. I can't tell you how many times I've been disappointed by the contents of the CDs that accompany textbooks, but this one surprised me. I watched the small number of movies, which didn't do much for me, but moved on into the "sidebars" and artwork, and that's where I found the true value. The supplementary sidebars are really neat, and add a lot of context to the material in the text. They're optional, but are a really great way of reinforcing some of the information that appears in the text. The artwork is also incredibly valuable. I know I've often looked at figures in textbooks and wished it were available to include in a presentation I'm working on - eg. my comprehensive exam talk - and not been able to find something comparable elsewhere that fits. Here, every single figure in the text is given to you as a .jpg or comparable file. That alone might make this textbook worth buying! (Note, the images are copyright, so you can't distribute them, but you can certainly incorporate them or modify them under the fair use section of copyright law - or whatever your local laws provide.)

I mentioned the supplementary sidebars on the CD, but the text itself is full of them, and they are a very effective way of keeping you interested in the material. They're full of interesting facts, examples of how information was discovered, what exceptions exist to the rules... and the occasional discussion of how the information impacts cancer patients. They truly make the textbook a joy to read.

Of course, with all the positive comments above, you might think this is the perfect textbook - and it's pretty close, I'll have to admit, but there were a few things that I wasn't too thrilled about.

My biggest complaint is that much of the textbook is organized around either chronological events, or a sort of detective style story, leading you through the "how" and the "why" of each discovery. In many chapters, this is an extremely effective device, but there were times when I just wanted to find out how things work and not have to follow all of the twists and turns that faced the scientists who did the work.

With that said, the next complaint was that when the twists and turns were interesting and I wanted to follow up more on the work, I found it difficult or impossible to figure out which of the references cited for each chapter were relevant. There is no guide to which articles or publications were used at any point. It makes the paragraphs easier on the eyes, I suppose, but can be very discouraging if you just want to track down a particular experiment or two.

Finally, my third complaint is the synopsis and prospects section at the end of each chapter. For the most part, I really enjoyed these sections, but their purpose was relatively vague. Sometimes they performed a review, while in other chapters they introduced entirely new concepts. Again, this is a minor complaint, but it did irk me when I thought I was reviewing the chapter and would come across things I did not recall seeing earlier. (Much page flipping would ensue.)

Making up for the synopsis and prospects section, however, is a great "key concepts" section that invariably follows. This was a key tool for my review - if anything in the key concepts section that seemed unfamiliar or unclear would send me back into the chapter to make sure I hadn't missed things. It really reinforced the lessons found earlier in the chapter, in case I'd been dozing somewhere earlier in the 60-80 pages per chapter.

So, to sum up my review, this textbook got a 9 out of 10. It was infinitely more readable than most science textbooks, told a great story, and provides an extremely valuable reference for people in the field. However, that last 10% was somewhat disappointing in making it a great starting point for further research, simply because the author didn't provide an easy way to access the primary material while reading, and the matter of having to wade through a lot of history to get to the current status of the research on each topic.


Blogger Liam said...

Excellent review, thanks for the comments. I've been looking for something like this to bring me up to speed on cancer biology and I've been daunted by the number of options, but this looks like a good pick.

December 19, 2008 6:38:00 AM PST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Fejes, Believe it or not, someone told me about your review and I read every word of it, the nice things you said and your criticisms, and I found them all well articulated and to the point! Thanks for these remarks, which I will keep close to my heart as I continue to work, as I now am doing, on the 2nd edition. There is one factor that you need to keep in mind when you think about how this book was put together and will be in its 2nd edition: all this rests on one set of shoulders and one brain, and there are things I would've liked to included (e.g., references to primary sources) that I simply wasn't able to do, given the fact there are only 168 hours in a week, the vastness of the published literature, the difficulty of adequately evaluating all the primary sources that might be cited, (and the sensitivities of my colleagues, some of whose paper would inevitably not be cited!! ) Again, many thanks for your comments and best wishes for the rest of your doctoral training. Bob Weinberg

December 19, 2008 9:38:00 AM PST  
Blogger Anthony said...

Hi Dr. Weinberg,

Thank you very much for taking the time to leave a comment here - I'm absolutely flattered that you read my review, and I am aware that most researchers have very little free time - particularly those who take on the herculean task of writing a textbook! If you have yet another moment, perhaps I can write a further addendum to the review that might clarify a few items.

Being new to the reviewing game, I hope my comments were not overly harsh or offensive - it's always easier to pick on the things we don't like than to articulate the ones that we do. (It is a skill that I have only been learning slowly, through the course of writing this blog.)

I should also clarify my comments on the textbook, particularly with respect to the linking to primary sources.

In retrospect, I note that many of the sidebars do have references, and that much of the information is there. It would be a Herculean task to point everything back to primary sources, so please take my comment more as a wishlist item than a deficiency. (I had the opportunity to write a texbook chapter last year, and it was already a complex task, which I'm certain is dwarfed by the work that goes into a full textbook, not even considering the figures, sidebars and the supplementary material.)

The comments really come from two sources. The first is that I was reading your excellent textbook in the context of studying for a comprehensive exam, where primary sources are often required. For people new to the field as undergraduates, this is probably not an issue, however in reviewing the work, I felt it might be of interest to my audience, which I believe is primarily graduate students and post-docs.

The second aspect comes from a simple comparison of media. For those of use who have grown up in the world of the internet, we're very much used to all information being densely cross-referenced. When reading a wikipedia article, I often find myself branching out to read more about related subjects and pursuing interesting references. Of course, a textbook can't use this format - paper doesn't lend itself well to click-able cross-references. However, I still found myself reflexively looking for those "links", and was thwarted by their absence.

In many ways, this "complaint" should be taken as a compliment. When reading Voet and Voet, I don't think I ever had the urge to find out the source of the experiments presented - they were never shown in a way that really engaged the reader, whereas your ability to impart an enthusiasm for the subject shines through, and engaged me on several occasions to look into a field I knew next to nothing about 4 weeks ago.

In many ways, this textbook was more like the story of cancer biology than simply a textbook. In presenting my review, I could have spoken volumes about the excellent illustrations, the wonderfully articulate explanations and the concise synopses of a complex field - but I think all of the readers of my blog will immediately recognize that upon seeing the book - and many of them will expect it from reading your other works. (The amount of work that goes into it is readily apparent without me pointing it out, I hope!)

At any rate, I have learned both from your textbook, and now your comment.

Thank you!

December 19, 2008 3:32:00 PM PST  

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