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Monday, May 31, 2021

Review: The Code Breaker

 The Code Breaker is Isaacson's biography of Jennifer Doudna, who shared a Nobel prize for chemistry in 2020. Unlike his previous biographies, Doudna is still alive when the book was published, so rather than a pure biography, the book actually includes much of the context of her research, as well as the role she played early on during the COVID19 pandemic.

The book does a good job of also providing a summary of the discovery of DNA, but I really enjoyed the "behind-the-scenes" look at how the research is done, including the incredibly vicious competition between various teams that raced to be first to a break through, complete with patent lawsuits, witnessed lab notebooks, and various backstabbing.

One interesting factor I enjoyed early on was when Doudna was trying to decide on her major in college:

She thought about changing her major to French. “I went to talk to my French teacher about that, and she asked what I was majoring in.” When Doudna replied that it was chemistry, the teacher told her to stick with it. “She was really insistent. She said ‘If you major in chemistry you’ll be able to do all sorts of things. If you major in French you will be able to be a French teacher.’ ” (kindle loc 519)

Far from being a linear career path as a researcher, we also saw various twists and turns Jennifer Doudna took, including a short stint at Genentech:

She returned to her Berkeley lab at the beginning of March, after only two months away. From this misstep, she became more aware of her passions and skills—and also her weaknesses. She liked being a research scientist in a lab. She was good at brainstorming with people she trusted. She was not good at navigating a corporate environment where the competition was for power and promotions rather than discoveries. “I didn’t have the right skill set or passions to work at a big company.” (kindle loc 1404) 

The last third of the book was clearly rushed, and to be honest, the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine story, while depending on RNA (Doudna's major contribution), didn't directly depend or derive from her research, so there, the book feels a little more diffused. There's a major section on the ethics of germline genetic editing, but there I'm completely unmoved by Issacson's hand-wringing. To my mind, there is never any excuse to subject another human mind (especially one unformed and unable to choose) to the terrors and vagaries of mental illness, and eliminating genes for depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia is so much a no-brainer that I naturally despise anyone who would declaim, "What about Van Gogh or Edgar Allen Poe," as if the artists were creative because of their illness, not despite it! Who knows if a non-mentally version of Van Gogh could have been even better, and seriously, who are you to determine whether someone else should suffer so you could have good art?!!

And here's the thing. That kind of hand-wringing never happens for physical disabilities. You never get someone saying of an athlete who overcomes say, asthma, "Oh, what if we cured asthma and lose those great athletes!" For some reason, people feel the need to demean artists and writers as though the only reason they can be great is because of a mental illness that nobody would ever ask for. The last year has definitely (for me at least) destroyed the respectability of medical ethicists. The kind of people who wring their hands over curing mental illness were also the same people who decreed that having lots of vaccine in Fresno sitting in freezers is better than putting doses in arms in Santa Clara. As far as I'm concerned, those people have no business making important decisions affecting human lives --- hire an engineer to do that job instead.

That kinda soured me on the book, but I would still recommend it for its great insight into the various teams racing for significant scientific breakthroughs, as well as a good explanation for what CRISPR is.

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