No one wants to accept a Nobel Prize virtually! That’s the day to call your hairdresser and buy that ridiculously expensive outfit to wear to the Stockholm Concert Hall, where the king of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, will give you an 18-karat gold medal and the celebratory handshake!
But our American protagonist Jennifer Doudna and her French counterpart Emmanuelle Charpentier were cheated out of these fancy moments by COVID! Truth be told, they’ve been picking up some stratospheric prizes in Chemistry for a while now. The Code Breaker is a book about them - two women in STEM. That's a good starting point.
My ‘Spidey-tingle' tells me that this book will have a special place in human history. A once-in-a-lifetime pandemic meets one of the modern world’s accomplished biographers - Walter Isaacson - who has chronicled Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs and Leonardo da Vinci. Tall order!
Why these two? Duodna and Charpentier have given the world an easy-to-use tool that can edit DNA. Known as CRISPR, it has opened a brave new world of medical miracles - like potentially outwitting the next plague through better screening and treatment, or genetic engineering for fewer diseases in children - and moral questions. There's a visual aid (including a graphic that describes exactly how CRISPR works) in the book that is an absolute must-see.
There’s a general perception that scientific biographies can be cumbersome. This one isn’t, even though one can’t call it a ‘breezy read.’ Listing the upsides here -
1. Tell a story like a story: Doudna is a mother concerned about her child whom she has dropped off at a robotics competition. That’s where the book begins. Isaacson makes one of the greatest scientists of our time relatable from the word go!
2. Banish the naysayers: Duodna’s high school counsellor told her that ‘girls didn’t become scientists’. Hence, she decided she would. It definitely helped when father left a paperback titled The Double Helix on her bed in 6th grade!
3. Collaborate to conquer: Doudna and Charpentier have never belonged to the same research institution. Yet, they have collaborated with each other and numerous colleagues in several countries by building on shared interests, camaraderie and competition.
4. Remember why you started telling the story: There are chapters that deal with biohackers, rivalries, patents, and the personality quirks of the characters. These are the easy, fun parts. But Isaacson knows his science really well; he writes with an experienced hand and some scientific portions are extremely deep. Bear in mind that the overall story is well-nigh unmissable, so skip some portions if you need to but stay with the story.
5. Put in your 10,000 hours: To write this book, the author has attended scientific conferences, toured laboratories, consulted experts on both sides of disputes, conducted extensive readings and interviews. The effort is visible and hence the book’s value.
It’s not easy to write a book about science and then also have a biographic narrative run through it. Perhaps, Isaacson’s own curiosity gave him purpose. He writes, “most of all, I want to convey the importance of basic science, meaning quests that are curiosity-driven rather than application-oriented. Curiosity-driven research into the wonders of nature plants the seeds, sometimes in unpredictable ways, for later innovations.”
Strangely enough, the epilogue is very telling of the unpredictability of our times. As the author winds down to enjoy a fine day on his balcony, putting COVID to rest and “hear music on the street and smell shrimp being boiled at the corner restaurant," the virus itself is back among us. And the story lives on.