Inspiring and difficult, Walter Isaacson’s The Code Breaker brought me back to graduate school, but this time the reading was not compulsory for a course, but for my sense of wanting to learn. Science is not my favorite subject; I favor literature, but Isaacson’s conversational style easily led me through the story he wanted to impart.
Although the title identifies Jennifer Doudna as the focus, the book is more than her biography. The subtitle may have been more telling – “The Future of the Human Race.” Isaacson neatly uses Doudna as the fulcrum for the emanating circle of collaborators and influencers in her life and work. I read this book very slowly, trying hard to digest all the information. Despite Isaacson’s easy style and simplified explanations, it still required my concentration and focus. I wanted to understand, and, in the end, I did.
Doudna’s journey as an educator and researcher had some connections that resounded with me, but her level of dedication and enthusiasm clearly soared beyond the norm, and she deservedly won the Nobel Prize. But Isaacson is able to draw out her personal background with arrows pointing to progress and success in her professional life. She is human, after all, and Isaacson does not shy away from her mistakes or misjudgments. Her meeting with James Watson later in life when he is ninety and she is well revered, was poignant; here was the man whose book The Double Helix had inspired her as a girl to study science, yet his prejudices had destroyed his reputation.
Isaacson inserts his own conclusions and predictions in many of the chapters, but especially when discussing the possibility of gene editing, not only for improving health but also for improving the human species. That controversy was paused when the coronovirus took hold of scientists’ and the world’s attention, but it is still there. Dava Sobel’s book review for the New York Times is titled “A Biography of the Woman Who Will Re-Engineer Humans.”
Reading this book in real time has been strange. While reading, Doudna and her collaborators created a test for Covid-19. While reading about her efforts to create the vaccine, I actually received mine. And the news of two women receiving the Nobel Prize made the evening news not long ago. For a while, we all wondered who would win the race – the virus or the vaccine, but Isaacson closes his story saying we should be cautious, slow down, especially with the genetic engineering that helped create those recent saviors.
The book encompasses so many ideas and people, it would take a second read to capture all the details of biotechnology. But I probably won’t read it again – after all, there is no test I need to take on it, and I can always go back to find what I need in its extensive index. It is worth reading at least once, however; the story will leave you in awe and with a new appreciation of science.