Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Carl Zimmer's Book Review in Wall Street Journal

I have not yet reached mature heights of professionalism because I am able to revel in someone else's mistake. And- that mistake is Carl Zimmer's mistake. I do not know Carl other than a few brief emails we have exchanged back and forth but I have heard of him as an acclaimed science communicator. And apparently even those make a few errors along the way.

The book review (found here) is a nice discussion of two books about gene therapy. The review is quite informative- I learned a lot about a topic that I do not follow very closely.  However, he mentions some chemistry and actually does not quite get it right. Here is the problem:

"The metaphor only goes so far, though. DNA does not float in isolation. It is intricately wound around spool-like proteins called histones. It is studded with caps made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms, known as methyl groups. This coiling and capping of DNA allows individual genes to be turned on and off during our lifetimes. "

If he had paid attention in general and organic chemistry he would know that methyl groups are strictly defined as carbon/hydrogen functional groups. Once you introduce oxygen you have a ketone, carboxyl group, alcohol, carboxylic acid, aldehyde or a few others that I won't mention.

Never thought teaching these intro chemistry classes would allow me to smugly make a correction in the Wall Street Journal!

Now- let's give Carl a break here. He is not discussing chemistry. He is merely making note of it within a discussion of a completely different topic. But- as scientists we are precise. Part of this precision is knowing our functional groups.

Perhaps Carl would benefit from my class. Somehow I can't see him enrolling in a JC to brush up on his chemistry. I'll have to settle for this short blog entry which he will probably never read.

I'm not smug- not really. I just know that I have found something in WSJ that I can correct! I have contributed to the body of literature. Gold star for me (See previous post about gold stars as part of my happiness project)


  1. Whoops--you're right. I'm wrong. Not sure how I made that mistake, since I've previously written about methylation correctly. I will let my editor at the Wall Street Journal know. Best, Carl

  2. All I can say is, oops. I can't figure out why I added oxygen, since I've described methylation correctly in the past. I've asked my editor to post a correction. Thanks for pointing this out.

  3. Hi Carl- Thanks for visiting my blog. It's a small error- could have been an editorial mistake for all the reader's knew.
    Take care- Julie