Author: Walter Isaacson
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Summary: An engaging, personal look at some incredible scientific achievements.
I’ve been looking forward to this biography of Noble prize-winning scientist Jennifer Doudna for months. I worked on a protein used for gene editing in grad school (the TALENs briefly mentioned in this book), so the topic is of personal interest to me. I’ve also heard great things about Walter Isaacson’s biographies of other notable thinkers, including da Vinci and Einstein. And I was interested in learning more about Jennifer Doudna, as she’s one of the most high profile female scientists I’m aware of. For all of these reasons, I had very high expectations for this book and it still exceeded them. Even at almost 500 pages, it was an engaging read that flew by, explaining the science clearly and giving a really intimate look at the people involved.
The science and the people stories were both strong elements of this biography. The author explained the science clearly, explicitly highlighting the most important facts for the reader to remember. Helpful analogies and colloquial language made the science approachable. As someone with prior knowledge of this topic, I admired the author’s ability to use simple and concise language, while still presenting information accurately. The author’s discussion of the ethics of gene editing was equally impressive. He analyzed concepts in a nuanced way. Hypothetical cases gave the reader a chance to make up their own mind and highlighted how moral judgements aren’t always clear cut. Short chapters broken up into even shorter sections made this challenging material more digestible. I think that’s part of why the author was able to write a book of the length needed to treat these topics thoroughly without getting bogged down.
The people stories also gave this book a lot of momentum. Competition between individual scientists and shifting alliances added some suspense. The author handled these competitions with as much nuance as the ethical questions though. While the author sometimes expressed an opinion, he also identified his biases and gave the reader the info they needed to understand all parties. I empathized with everyone involved. Understanding how several of the major players got interested in science, will, I think, make it easier for non-scientists to see the appeal of the topic. Likewise, the excitement of the scientists making each discovery was infectious. I wouldn’t say this gave a great view of what a scientist’s day-to-day work is like, but it definitely showed the appeal of the discoveries they pursue. Obviously, with my professional interests, this was a fantastic read for me. I loved this insider perspective on what I think will be one of the biggest science stories of the century. However, I think the thoughtful, personable approach the author took here make this book a must-read for anyone who enjoys biographies or science nonfiction.