Bingo 4: People
In addition to the cover being of a person, this is also a book about people on several levels, down to the genetics. On the surface it’s the biography of one of the winners of the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry, Jennifer Doudna for her work with the CRISPR. The thing is, that’s actually not totally accurate. This book is also an introduction to bio-engineering and general molecular biology, an expose on academic science world and how it’s shifted to more business and profit focus as well as the friendly and not so friendly competition for publications and patents, a history of science, gender in science and academia, and also a look at how research science and medicine interact.
In spite of the highly technical subject, this is actually pretty readable. In some ways, this works. The language is usually either pretty everyday or else it’s explained. The problem though is that sometimes the science bits are actually kind of shallow or not given as much attention as they might need. I’ve read the whole thing, understood most of it, but I can’t tell you what CRISPR actually stands for or the details of how it works, even though that information is given in the book. I can tell you that it’s a process in which a certain kind of RNA has the natural ability to cut bits out of DNA and replace it with other DNA.
There’s the history of science stuff, from the discovery of genes, then DNA, then RNA, and then bits of RNA and DNA and how they work. There’s also a lot of people working on similar things, which can lead to similar scientific discoveries at the same time (look up the history of calculus for another example; it was independently figured out by Isaac Newton and someone else at almost the same time, but someone gets more public credit). This is the other major thread of the book; there are a lot of people involved over a pretty long period of time. Some of them work together, some work almost against each other. Sometimes there’s personal animosity, and often professional. The author does occasionally take sides here, but it’s usually pretty inobtrusive. All the personal stuff sometimes gets away from the science just enough that it breaks whatever narrative is going on, and for me at least, that got distracting. There are so many stories and so many characters that it gets really hard to keep track of people, relationships, and events. I’m now very glad I’m not a part of the science part of the academy; wow, is there a lot of office politics and personal drama. Also, much sexism and generally quite a few people I don’t think I’d want to spend time around.
Then there is the connection of CRISPR to scientific ethics and the potential for medical uses as well as citizen scientists, or at least those not directly associated with an institution, be it academic, corporate, or government. This all relates to the COVID-19 pandemic and the vaccines that use the RNA-based technology. The last few chapters of the book get into this part, and even though it’s so recent, it feels like an add-on. There’s so much more detail about the virus and the vaccines that would make that part of the story much more interesting; granted that’s at least a whole other 500+ page book, but if you’re going to bring it up, the rather shallow treatment kind of does a bit of a disservice to the history of vaccines, plagues, pandemics, and medicine.
My conclusion: this is current and generally approachable science, but I wouldn’t want someone else to spend the $35 that this thing costs off the shelf. I’m glad I didn’t pay that much (yay for coupons!), but I’m still slightly irritated I didn’t just get this from the library.