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Cell biology text books and The Beatles

by Eva Amsen

When the third edition of the popular text book Molecular Biology of the Cell (MBOC) came out in 1994, the author photo on the back cover showed the six authors walking across the famous crosswalk near the Abbey Road studios in North-West London. Like many tourists who visit the spot, they imitated The Beatles’ Abbey Road album cover.

“We were crossing Abbey Road, because the place where we work is right around the corner from the Beatles recording studio there”, explained Bruce Alberts in a talk in 2012.

The Abbey Road author photo on the third edition of MBOC started a twenty-year tradition of Beatles album cover parodies on cell biology textbooks by Bruce Alberts and his co-authors. I found most (perhaps even all) of them and put them side by side with the corresponding Beatles album below.


When you move the sliders to compare the author photos to the Beatles albums, you can see that what started as a casual funny photo, simply referencing the location where they wrote the book, eventually turned into elaborate photo shoots to get as close as possible to the album covers.

Crossing Abbey Road, from right (front) to left: Bruce Alberts, Dennis Bray, Julian Lewis, Martin Raff, Keith Roberts, and James Watson. Martin Raff plays the Paul McCartney part, and crosses barefoot. (Don’t worry: just like McCartney, he’s still alive!)
Three years after this third edition of Molecular Biology of the Cell, all of the authors, plus Peter Walter, produced a different textbook: Essential Cell Biology. Having done the Abbey Road thing already, they went for a different Beatles album, and posed in the side-lit style of With The Beatles (released in the US as Meet The Beatles).

A fourth edition of Molecular Biology of the Cell came out in 2002, and by now the authors were dedicated to the cause. This time, Alberts, Lewis, Raff, Roberts and Walter wrote the book together with Alexander Johnson, and their author photo is by far the best one. They went full-out this time for a Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band homage. The celebrity collage in the background of the original was replaced with a collage of famous scientists and some political figures. How many can you recognize?

The second edition of Essential Cell Biology came out in 2003, but I can’t find any information online about an author photo in this edition. There’s nothing shown on the back cover on the Amazon preview.
The next Beatles album cover parody appears on the fifth edition of MBOC, in 2007. This time, the authors get the sketch/photo collage treatment of Revolver.

For the third edition of Essential Cell Biology, Alberts, Bray, Johnson, Lewis, Raff, Roberts and Walter were joined by Karen Hopkin. The eight of them went for a Help-style author photo, and added a little biology joke in there: The authors in the top row spell out G, T, C, A in sempaphore signals – the one-letter codes for the four nucleotides in DNA. The bottom row is the complementary strand: C, A, G, T.

Essential Cell Biology‘s 4th edition came out in 2013, and the same group of eight authors now did their author photo in the style of A Hard Day’s Night. This time they went for accuracy, mimicking most of the expressions of the original cover. A notable exception: Alexander Johnson is not copying George Harrison’s cigarette photo!

Finally, the latest edition of Molecular Biology of the Cell was released in November 2014. Having exhausted the elaborate collages, they went for simplicity, and posed leaning over a balcony, just like the Beatles did on the cover of Please Please Me.

I love the Beatles cover parodies, but the joke is lost on many of the students who use these text books. Larry Moran once said that his undergraduate students didn’t understand the Abbey Road reference on the 3rd edition of Molecular Biology of the Cell, and this Reddit thread reveals that the Help parody was not recognizable to students either.

I’m pretty certain I learned about the Beatles in school, but that was way back when Alberts et al. first crossed Abbey Road for their author photo.

Update April 2017

Through Reddit, I discovered another one!


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Beatles-inspired author photos | The Finch and Pea June 30, 2015 - 3:00 PM

[…] editions of both textbooks have included author photos in the style of a Beatles album. I’ve listed them all on easternblot.net, with sliders to compare them to the corresponding album. I couldn’t get the sliders to work […]

Maddy Pikarsky July 10, 2018 - 3:34 PM

The brilliant, talented artist and illustrator of these amazing MBoC back covers is also the illustrator of the figures inside the book itself :- Nigel Orme of Norfolk UK.

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