‘The Code Breaker’ by Walter Isaacson
I finished reading Walter Isaacson’s ‘The Code Breaker’ yesterday, a book about Jennifer Doudna, CRISPR, gene editing and the life sciences revolution that is happening today. It is a good book, but it could have been a brilliant book.
Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier are two of the most famous scientists in the world right now, and deservedly so. They shared the Nobel prize in Chemistry 2020 and are rock stars. That they are also women leading the science is revolutionary. That aspect is shown, if just.
This book is a tour de force and covers a vast swath of science and scientific history. It reaches back to Nobel prize winners James Watson and Francis Crick for their work on DNA, and the reprehensible treatment of Rosalin Franklin by Watson and Crick. And here Isaacson first injects poor writerly judgment by apologizing for the men.
The book covers the science well. The processes, the organizations and the mustering of resources, the competition between scientists and their teams. But it is weak on the human side.
I don’t know Doudna after reading this book. Her thoughts, feelings, motivations are not shared. Her quirks(and we all have them), her values, her sense of humour. I felt the author liked George Church more and let that feeling show through. Charpentier plays too small a role in the story, and I feel she is an interesting character who could have shone. But Isaacson is poor in presenting people.
I previously read Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs. I started reading that book in awe of what Jobs did, but thinking he was not a nice person or a good man. I left that book with my impression unchanged.
I started reading this book in awe of Doudna, but not knowing much about her personality. I finished the same way.
Isaacson would be well served to read some good fiction with an eye to how the author creates closeness, intimacy even, to great characters. He doesn’t get close to Doudna, so the reader can’t, and it hurts the book.
But he goes further and injects himself into the story. He shows a predisposition to be the moderator, to try to settle contentious issues. He papers over the genuine conflict between Doudna and Feng Zhang, as between Watson, Crick and Franklin. When both Doudna and Zhang are in attendance at future events, do they speak? Is the relationship strained, awkward even? The author is uncomfortable going there, so he doesn’t.
Good writing needs honesty, and I think this author fails on that account. He didn’t want to upset anyone. That gentle vision works in actual life but makes for milquetoast literature. And the book closes by winning a Nobel prize. I expected elation and celebration. Nope. A sad, final missed opportunity.
March 28, 2021, 2021
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