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Most of Walter Isaacson’s biographies are not only about geniuses they have a whiff of genius themselves. The reader is made to palpably feel the qualities that made these personalities so distinctive—from Steve Jobs’ power to warp reality to Leonardo Da Vinci’s unquenchable curiosity.
It’s not that Isaacson makes grievous errors. In fact, everything in the Code Breaker is right. The explanation of the science behind Crispr is right, the biographical sketch of Jennifer Doudna seemed right, the culture of academia is captured right, he even broaches the ethical questions raised by Doudna’s work right. And yet, none of this goes beyond what you can gain from a typical extended article in National Geographic.
If Walter Isaacson were not the author, if this was simply a much needed biography of a very important scientist, it would be correctly regarded as a success. But given that Walter Isaacson is one of America’s premier biographers and Dr. Doudna one of America’s leading scientists, I was disappointed that Isaacson wrote for such a low common denominator of readership. On the other hand, if you’re looking for an easy to read book on this subject, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Not a bad book but Isaacson’s devoted readers, of whom I count myself one, are going to be disappointed.
While I enjoyed the read I also found this book to be a bit dry at times. Many external references to articles and people. Factual but not written in an entertaining form. Walter did a good job capturing history from the many players involved. I think his writing style just isn’t one I enjoy.
Isaacson is a terrific storyteller and the story he tells about CRISPR is fascinating. Buy the book to learn about this biological tool that is changing the world (and the way babies will be born in future).
The problem is the CRISPR story collides with COVID-19 (the genome of COVID-19 is on the book cover: CAUUGCCUACA....). We learn how the CRISPR technologies will help create vaccines to fight viruses, test for viruses, ect.. What we don’t learn is anything about the origin story of COVID-19. While we were in the midst of a global pandemic, Issacson was talking with Doudna, Charpentier, Church, Zhang (fluent in Mandarin) and many more about COVID-19 and he doesn’t ask the obvious question: Was CRISPR used to create the COVID-19 virus? Either the virus directly or to CRISPR mice so that they are “humanized”, ie, have humanized ACE2 receptors on lung cells which would allow, in a lab setting, the ability to immuno-suppress the humanized mice and feed them vaporized viruses, thousands of mice daily....until a virus evolves perfectly ready to infect the human ACE2 receptors? You had access to the Murders’ Row of Scientists, the Ruth and Gehrig of RNA and you don’t ask them what they think about the origin of COVID or you ask all the brilliant questions, but are not courageous enough to report. Me thinks the latter. Hence, 3 stars and I hope your wager with integrity allows you to sell a billion books in China.
An interesting book but in my opinion it has 4 important flaws
1) not one diagram to show an example of how CRISPR works - there are many on the internet but isn't there one in the book? A few diagrams would have greatly aided understanding of CRISPR; 2) too much emphasis on Jennifer Doudna - many others also made major contributions; and 3) only one place (page 336) points out difference between germline and somatic DNA editing which explains that the DNA can only be permanently altered prior to birth; and 4) is much too long - lots of filler that does not contribute to an understanding of the subject.
This is a well told tale of the discovery and consequent applications, current and projected, of CRISPR and its editing of DNA and the use of RNA in the processes. The cast of scientists involved in parallel and competitive research and patent disputes is impressive, as is the revelation of the evolving and intersecting roles of the market place and higher educational institutions and foundations in the field of bioscience research and related disciplines. This is not in generally accepted terms a biography but more of an extended piece of journalism as one would expect of its author, Walter Isaacson, an experienced journalist and a writer of acclaimed and accessible accounts of Einstein, Leonardo and Steve Jobs. Consequently there is a good deal more of the author in this biography than one would find in a more scholarly effort, compounded by the effect of the author’s name in capital letters at the top of each verso page of this almost 500 page book. An objective biography should distance the writer from the subject more than Isaacson seems willing to do. He rather vicariously seeks identification with the lead characters of this exciting story of modern medicinal research.
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).