Then, insisting that he does not yet know what the last book will be because it is not yet ready, he hurries on: it is about “the end of life, the prolongation of life, the metabolism, what happens when we approaching the end and how we can possibly prolong the end It’s about compassion and it’s about feeling it’s about my father’s death and it’s about watching people die – what is graceful when we end life, and at what moment.
The first three books of what he calls the quartet delve deeply into the history of scientific research; they’re all ‘fundamentally about understanding the units that organize our lives. When we understand those units, we begin to imagine the human body as a cluster of cells, as a cluster of genes.” He calls it one of the most important ideas in human history.
Mukherjee, 52, speaks via Zoom from his office in Columbia. He’s slumped in his chair, almost leaning forward by the time the conversation is well underway, and every minute or two he runs his hands through artfully tousled hair, dropping it first to one side and then to the other. .
The oncologist who became author and became famous (profiled alongside Sze in Vogue, in the Ken Burns documentary based on “Emperor”) is viewed with some skepticism by many in the medical research community. When he published an extract from “The Gene” in The New Yorker in 2016, it caused a furore among researchers in the field.
“The New Yorker’s article is so vastly wrong that it defies rational analysis,” said molecular biologist and Nobel laureate Walter Gilbert. wrote at the time, one of several scholars who publicly criticized the work as simplistic and misrepresenting fundamental ideas. The publisher of the book has made corrections in subsequent editions.
But other scientists say Mukherjee is doing an invaluable service by telling the story of what makes us human at a time when trust in science has been shattered. “I don’t know Sid well, but I think he’s a genius,” said Bert Vogelstein, a pioneer in oncology research who was the first to demonstrate the molecular basis of human cancer. “I think the ability to explain complicated problems to people who are not experts in the field is a real talent and a great service to both the public and scientists.”