Saturday, June 28, 2008

Good Science Writers: Helena Curtis

Helena Curtis is another science writer who didn't make it into The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing. She died in 2005. One of many obituaries appeared in The villager [Helena Curtis, 81, wrote ‘elegant’ science textbooks].
Helena Curtis, a noted science writer and college biology textbook author, died on Feb. 11 at the age of 81. She was a resident of Sag Harbor and Greenwich Village.

Her first book, “The Viruses,” published in 1965 by Natural History Press, was followed in 1968 by “The Marvelous Animals.” In 1966, she was signed to a contract for a college biology textbook by Worth Publishers. The idea of a textbook written not by an academic, but by a professional science writer, in consultation with biology experts, was at that time revolutionary and greeted with skepticism. However, when Curtis’s “Biology” was published in 1968, it received a laudatory review in Scientific American by Nobel Laureate Salvador Luria. Through five editions in English it has sold 1.3 million copies. A shorter book, “Invitation to Biology,” has sold 600,000 copies. Both books have enjoyed success in Spanish and Italian editions, with more than 1 million of the books sold in Italian. On the later editions of both books, she was joined by N. Sue Barnes as co-author. Curtis also co-authored “Biology of Plants.”

Curtis’s books and her articles for encyclopedias, journals and magazines were praised for their scientific accuracy, elegant writing and wit. In 1988, Professor John O. Corliss of the University of Maryland said, with regard to the fifth edition of “Biology”: “The writing is about the closest to poetry that a scientific textbook can ever hope to get. It is thoroughly enjoyable, stimulating, imaginative, yet beautifully factual.”

The passage I've chosen is from her biology book. It's the opening paragraphs of Chapter 1. Her phrase "You and I are flesh and blood, but we are also stardust" is one of the most widely quoted sentences ever to come from a biology textbook.
Our universe began, according to current theory, with an explosion that filled all space, with every particle of matter hurled away from every other particle. The temperature at the time of the explosion—some 10 to 20 billion years ago—was about 100,000000000 degrees Celsius (1011 °C). At this temperature, not even atoms could hold together; all matter was in the form of subatomic, elementary particles. Moving at enormous velocities, even those particles had fleeting lives. Colliding with great force, they annihilated one another, creating new particles and releasing great energy.

As the universe cooled, two types of stable particles, previously present only in relatively small amounts, began to assemble. (By this time, several hundred thousand years after the "big bang" is believed to have taken place, the temperature had dropped to a mere 2500°C, about the temperature of white-hot wire in an incandescent light bulb.) These particles—protons and neutrons—are very heavy as subatomic particles go. Held together by forces that are still incompletely understood, they formed the central cores, or nuclei, of atoms. These nuclei, with their positively charged protons, attracted small, light, negatively charged particles—electrons—which moved rapidly around them. Thus, atoms came into being.

It is from these atoms—blown apart, formed, and re-formed over the course of several billion years—that all the stars and planets of our universe are formed, including our particular star and planet. And it is from the atoms present on this planet that living systems assembled themselves and evolved. Each atom in our own bodies had its origin in that enormous explosion 10 to 20 billion years ago. You and I are flesh and blood, but we are also stardust.

This text begins where life begins, with the atom. At first, the universe aside, it might appear that lifeless atoms have little to do with biology. Bear with us, however. A closer look reveals that the activities we associate with being alive depend on combinations and exchanges between atoms, and the force that binds the electron to the atomic nucleus stores the energy that powers living systems.


  1. Helena Curtis's "Biology" was my undergrad text book. A great text book, and I still have it.

  2. It flows well, but I would nitpick the physics, and also question some of what she left out since it is interrupting the very same flow.

    To nitpick, and this is arguable, but most physicists would probably avoid describing the expansion of space (or if you wish, spacetime) in big bang as an explosion. This is thought to be basis for the usual misunderstanding of 'a center' for 'the explosion' et cetera. A more suitable simile (and fitting for a biology book!) is the universe as a small piece of a leavening raisin bread, every bit expanding.

    Leaving out without comment why there is a symmetry breaking making us see matter instead of equal amounts of matter and antimatter may or may not work. I find it a distracting hole in the description, but YMMV.

    (That "the force" that binds electrons semi-classically is separated into EM and exclusion 'force' is a minor hole in these descriptions, here I agree with Curtis that it is preferable to describe it as quantized EM.)

    But now I know that someone actually said "stardust", which usually is attributed to a misremembering of Sagan's "star stuff". Curtis beat the physicist for precision and descriptive power on his home turf. :-P Thanks for this valuable piece of information!

  3. I insist that good science writing be scientifically accurate as well as good writing. However, it's almost impossible to combine the two if the level of scientific accuracy is applied too rigorously.

    The trick is to find the middle ground where the public (or undergraduates) can enjoy reading and learn good science. In many cases this involves leaving out some distracting information (e.g. symmetry breaking) and adopting metaphors that may not be strictly accurate (e.g. explosion).

    It's not easy.

  4. Nice. I hope they are still using this textbook, with that paragraph intact, in the high schools.

  5. anonymous says,

    Nice. I hope they are still using this textbook, with that paragraph intact, in the high schools.

    The book died when Helena Curtis retired. The 5th edition (1989) was the last. It's now out of date and hasn't been used for about 15 years.

    The publisher tried to resurrect the book in the early 1990's. I was one of the people they considered as part of a new team of writers who would revise the text. It didn't work out.

    It was a huge mistake for the publisher to let the book die and shortly after that Worth Publishers was bought out by Freeman.

  6. Hi
    I am from India(in state of BIHAR which is not much developed till now) was very much attracted (when I was 16 years old) by the BIOLOGY Textbook by HELENA CURTIS & somehow managed to get this great book and really enjoyed reading it, although it was not recommended by anyone to me.

  7. As a sophomore in high school in 1981 I took AP biology. I remember loving what I think was the second edition of this textbook. It was the first college-level textbook I'd ever used, so I didn't know enough to realize how extraordinary good writing in a textbook was. I only remember compulsively reading it with great enthusiasm and thinking perhaps all college textbooks were this good. I got a 5 on the AP exam and went on to become a Ph.D. evolutionary biologist. I think Helena Curtis is perhaps more responsible than anyone else for turning me on to biology, including my teachers and S.J. Gould and E.O Wilson who were important influences in high school and college. I come to this discussion a little late, having just Googled her for the first time in three or four years, but I am glad to see I'm not alone in my appreciation of her work, although she deserves more recognition.