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A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock (1983)

by Evelyn Fox Keller

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254493,449 (3.86)4
For much of her life she worked alone, brilliant but eccentric, with ideas that made little sense to her colleagues. Yet before DNA and the molecular revolution, Barbara McClintock's tireless analysis of corn led her to uncover some of the deepest, most intricate secrets of genetic organization. Nearly forty years later, her insights would bring her a MacArthur Foundation grant, the Nobel Prize, and long overdue recognition. At her recent death at age 90, she was widely acknowledged as one ofthe most significant figures in 20th-century science. Evelyn Fox Keller's acclaimed biography,A Feeling for the Organism, gives us the full story of McClintock's pioneering--although sometimes professionally difficult--career in cytology and genetics. The book now appears in a special edition marking the 10th anniversary of its original publication.… (more)
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"The word 'understanding' and the particular meaning she attributed to it, is the cornerstone of Barbara McClintock's entire approach to science. For her, the smallest details provided the keys to the larger whole. It was her conviction that the closer her focus, the greater her attention to individual detail, to the unique characteristics of a single plant, of a single kernel, of a single chromosome, the more she could learn about the general principles by which the maize plant as a whole was organized, the better her 'feeling for the organism.'" (101)

"The crucial point of this story, to her, is the state of mind required in making such judgments. 'It is done with complete confidence, complete understanding. I understood every plant. Without being able to know what I was integrating, I understood the phenotype.' What does understanding mean here? 'It means that I was using a computer that was working very rapidly and very perfectly. I couldn't train anyone to do that."'" (102-103)

"Her virtuosity resided in her capacity to observe, and to process and interpret what she observed. As she grew older, it became less and less possible to delegate any part of her work; she was developing skills that she could hardly identify herself, much less impart to others. /The nature of insight in science, as elsewhere, is notoriously elusive. And almost all great scientists--those who learn to cultivate insight--learn also to respect its mysterious workings. It is here that their rationality finds its own limits. In defying rational explanation, the process of creative insight inspires awe in those who experience it. They come to know, trust, and value it." (103) ( )
  sonyahuber | Dec 3, 2019 |
Barbara McClintock was a brilliant female scientist, unwilling to settle for a “woman’s job” teaching when she was clearly cut out for research. Her intelligence and insight eventually put her discoveries so far ahead of the rest of her field that it took decades for her to receive the recognition she deserved. In this biography, we learn about both her struggles as a women in science and the details of her Nobel prize winning research.

Read more here.... ( )
  DoingDewey | Jun 29, 2014 |
Barbara McClintock was a brilliant female scientist, unwilling to settle for a “woman’s job” teaching when she was clearly cut out for research. Her intelligence and insight eventually put her discoveries so far ahead of the rest of her field that it took decades for her to receive the recognition she deserved. In this biography, we learn about both her struggles as a women in science and the details of her Nobel prize winning research.

I very much enjoyed the human element of this book. As a woman in science, it always makes me feel appreciative to hear about the women whose uphill battle led to our equal recognition in the field today. It’s impressive, but also a little intimidating, to read about someone this brilliant and focused! Quotes and anecdotes were very well integrated into the story and I felt like we really got to know Barbara McClintock.

Unfortunately, not all of the science in the book was as enjoyable for me. I’ve never been especially interested in cellular replication and a while is spent on that. The less basic concepts are then explained much less clearly and in much detail. Even with a little knowledge of genetics, I sometimes found it hard to follow.There was some interesting discussion of some broader questions in science: the necessity of a common language and tacit assumptions which allow communication, the danger of letting our expectations and prior knowledge color our interpretation of data and what we throw out as anomalous. This made for an interesting read, but I did skim some of the more technical bits. ( )
  DoingDewey | Nov 6, 2012 |
This slenderish book has some large objectives — to describe the life and work of a prodigiously productive scientist, to describe experiments to a general audience that contemporary experts in the field couldn't understand, and to suggest a theory on the philosophy of science. There are some comical moments, as when a ridiculously complex bunch of paragraphs are tied up with something like, "Now that you understand that, I will now spend the next chapter briefly reviewing the history of genetics." On my second or third reading, I'm still not sure that I grasp what makes transposition quite so revolutionary. But there's something that draws me to this book, even when what I remember is mostly the inscrutable discussions of ring chromosomes and regulators. I think it might be McClintock's voice, which comes through so clearly. ( )
  bexaplex | Jul 1, 2009 |
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For much of her life she worked alone, brilliant but eccentric, with ideas that made little sense to her colleagues. Yet before DNA and the molecular revolution, Barbara McClintock's tireless analysis of corn led her to uncover some of the deepest, most intricate secrets of genetic organization. Nearly forty years later, her insights would bring her a MacArthur Foundation grant, the Nobel Prize, and long overdue recognition. At her recent death at age 90, she was widely acknowledged as one ofthe most significant figures in 20th-century science. Evelyn Fox Keller's acclaimed biography,A Feeling for the Organism, gives us the full story of McClintock's pioneering--although sometimes professionally difficult--career in cytology and genetics. The book now appears in a special edition marking the 10th anniversary of its original publication.

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