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I haven’t yet finished the book and enjoy it generally. Yet have a nit pick with the end of Chapter 5 on the Human Genome Project. I find the chapter conclusion arrogant to singularly quote Harvard scientists who diminish the project outcome, and none who describe mapping genome discoveries. Why not let the reader conclude whether or not revealing 2.85 billion nucleotides, 100,000 bases sequenced, a map of chromosomes and gene locations linked to human traits. I guess maps aren’t very sexy. It took seventy years to write the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The OED didn’t write or publish any books, yet it enabled many in the literary world to write more brilliant books. (BTW, I did not work on the Human Genome Project. Just an interested scientist).
If you have no idea what has been happening with CRISPR Cas-9 gene editing then you will love this book. Remember, the book is written for the common man.
Pros: Chapters are short. This allows you to read and digest information with easy breaks for quick and short reading trips.
Isaacson weaves some background on DNA and political philosophy allowing the reader to learn more or refresh their undergraduate philosophy courses.
I genuinely believe Isaacson attempts to be impartial in some chapters.
Isaacson features the research scientist as the main event of the book with the end of the novel culminating with the Swedish prize. However, the amount of pages dedicated to her relegates her to a side show. I would have liked more information on Doudna.
The author fails to point out the many hypocrisies of Doudna seeking accolades and recognition. Although, this should be expected since the book features her.
The author attempts to walk the tight rope on social justice by having a short synopsis on undergraduate level political philosophy, morality and ethics but ultimately ends up leaking his own personal bias into the discussion.
The book is an easy read. It is informative for those busy with life but interested in modern breakthroughs. Early chapters tend to play to emotion on pity and a few chapters near the end of the book tend to smack of social justice.
- Isaacson is a gifted writer, even if he stumbled from time to time in describing occasionally complex topics. - CRISPR is fascinating and Isaacson is correct when he postulates that it represents quite possibly the biggest issue of our time. - Isaacson does an excellent job of explaining a sometimes complex topic (although not as complex as people make it out to be -- don't be afraid!), as well as describing the various players involved.
- Isaacson appears to have decided that the book should focus on Jennifer Doudna as the main scientist (as you will see, this is a dubious choice), and his narrative often seems tailored to keep bringing the story back to her. - You wonder about how well Isaacson understands the technical aspects, as he managed to get a few things incredibly wrong when it came to digital computing (ostensibly gleaned from his research for his Steve Jobs biography). - It really faltered at the end with countless thought experiments, references to 1984 or the like, and an approach to moral issues that reminded me of the do-nothing approach Doudna's Cold Spring conferences espoused. - The COVID content was weak, but it's hard to blame Isaacson for that.
I am not sure there are better books out there about CRISPR, but this one wasn't great or anything special. Siddartha Mukerjee's "Gene" was similarly meh. 6.5/10.
A good biography is a story about an interesting person that does interesting things. The scientific breakthroughs are certainly interesting, albeit a bit dry. Jennifer Doudna is an intelligent and ambitious person but as the protagonist of this story, she is dull. Walter Isaacson has selected better subjects. Disappointing.
The first half kept my attention and answered many questions about biochemistry and CRISPR. The last half of Isaacson's book stepped into ethical and moral questions and somewhat boring information about personalities, conferences, and arguments. That's not what I expected, so I skipped many chapters and sections without feeling I had missed important information. Get this book from your library and quit at page 325. That first part is worth reading.
Pros - Fascinating characters and revealing insights into their personal and professional motivations. Doudna appears to be portrayed fairly, and in a complex, true-to-life nature. Truly, and inspiring life and career story. - Great (and accessible) birds-eye-view of the broader CRISPR universe, and description of how these technologies build upon discovery/“curiosity” science - A thorough, intense, and critical review of the deeply troubling research conducted by He Jiankui - An easy, enjoyable read
Cons - While “bioethics” are invoked routinely, the examination of these topics is, at best, thin and trite. Isaacson’s “thought questions” boil down to “This is a terrible disease, isn’t it? Well, here is one anecdotal positive story that may make you reconsider!”. One should always seek to - The bio hacker community is portrayed as plucky rebels, working to democratize gene editing technologies, just like the early computer hacking community. This is a grossly irresponsible characterization- The individuals Isaacson focuses on are found experimenting on themselves in truly inadvisable ways, and preaching about how they’re are pushing the scientific field forward (while running slap-shod experiments that would yield no usable data). Isaacson should have included more context or additional interviews with actual bioethicists, rather than relying on these self-aggrandizing individuals.
Even with its notable shortcomings, certainly worth the time to read and reflect on the life and work of a truly impressive scientist and the future ramifications of her impactful discoveries.
Isaacson only scratches the surface of this Nobel Laureate. Readers learn as much about Jenifer Doudna's competitors and detractors as they do about the researcher herself. Explanation of the science involved is equally superficial. At least it was a quick read.