As an overview, if you don't read any farther ... The Code Breaker is well done and informative; almost too much so if that makes sense. Certainly Walter Isaacson is a true master at his craft. Brilliant himself to understand the details and nuances, he became fairly close to several of the key figures in the field. In addition, and perhaps a caveat, personally I had difficulty keeping up with the unending series of researchers and various scientific differences. All in all, this book was both wonderful to read and a challenge. It's a painstaking and pathbreaking work that spotlights a "new frontier" for people wanting to get into a scientific field where they can change the world post-computer development and coding. Will it be for the better? Hopefully it's not a Pandora's box of uncontrollable evils along with the benefits.
On some level, this book, along with "Meteorite," are modern versions of the book of Genesis, albeit from a scientific point of view. They are not going to resonate with those who prefer the neat "seven days of creation" story, told in a beautiful glade with a handsome two-some, a wondrous Deity, and evil temptation. but these two works combine to underscore the wondrous (if not messy) story of creation. A Shakespeare quote nails it, from The Tempest:
How beauteous mankind is!
O brave new world,
That has such people in't!
The Code Breaker itself, on a more prosaic level, is well planned, with relatively short chapters and lots of nice color photos of the main players. It swings back and forth between more or less the same prestigious university labs, relishes displaying cool acronyms and other technical terms, as well as highlighting several researchers and teams competing for both knowledge and recognition (as well as patents and monetary rewards). The "Stanford model" emerges from more traditional academic research as a winner and influences the process. From this Bay Area hotspot emerged numerous famous companies, including fabulous wealth creation: Litton, Varian, HP, Sun, Google, and others. Silicon Valley indeed! Boston, as well, has profited from this factor, as well as the concept of channeling government R&D funding into university labs: transistors, computers, graphic user interfaces, global positioning systems, and the Internet itself are examples. Isaacson is a major proponent of this model.
But I digress.
The stars of The Code Breaker include Jennifer Doudna and her Nobel Prize co-recipient, Emmanuelle Charpenier, a somewhat harder to pin down French researcher in Europe. In addition, Virginijus Siksnys of Lithuania, Feng Zhang, a Chinese-American, Americans George Church and George Lander, as well as Chinese He Jiankui and the zany American rebel Josiah Zayner are featured. Three primary competing teams emerge, but there are so many researchers that it's hard to keep them all in mind at times as a virtual "scientific food fight" for recognition emerges. Then there is the irrepressible James Watson as a thread throughout as the co-discoverer of the DNA Double Helix.
In terms of the underlying science, DNA and RNA are the stars of the book. One key theme is how RNA can replicate itself: "An essential quality of living things is that they have a method for creating more organisms akin to themselves: they can reproduce." In addition, key tiny molecules can be programmed with different "guide RNAs" to cut DNA where-ever desired. "The means to rewrite the code of life" is now available to mankind. Repeat that to yourself several times.
This brilliant summary of technology developments by Isaacson transitions into questions of morality and the future of humankind with key questions such as the possibility not only of eliminating horrible diseases such as Huntington's and Sickle Cell Anemia, but also being used to create "desirable traits" in babies such as height, eye and hair color, and even possibly intelligence. Let that sink in! These can be done for only the individual, called "somatic" changes, but also can be made to be inheritable for future offspring, called "germline" changes. There is no hard and fast consensus on this, and most national associations have couched their guidelines in language that is subject to some interpretation. One Chinese researcher, He Jiankui, who performed germline changes on two embryos, was convicted of "illegal medical practice" with a three-year prison sentence, a substantial monetary fine, and was banned for life for work in reproductive science.
Clearly, as stated in the book, "For the first time in the evolution of life on this planet, a species has developed to edit its own genetic makeup." Repeat this several times. "Crossing the germline takes us to a distinct new realm." If the wealthy are able to buy genetic enhancements for their children," society could become genetically tiered along economic lines. In that case, we would transcend our financial inequality into our genetic code." Weighty moral issues indeed.
Finally, the book is so current that the current COVIC pandemic is covered. Traditional vaccines, used in the past, where a weakened or partial version of a dangerous virus was used to generate immunity, have transitioned to modern "genetic vaccines." A gene, or a piece of genetic coding to guide human cells to produce, on their own, components of the virus, stimulate the patient's immune system. New start-up companies such as Moderna and BioNTech have emerged. Hopefully, the historic pandemics, wave after wave of viral and bacterial plagues, now will be curtailed to some extent. That is, IF, people take the vaccines!
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Enjoy life; it's the only one we will get.
J.K. (Jim) George
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