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Reviews of The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

The Code Breaker

Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race

by Walter Isaacson

The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson X
The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2021, 560 pages

    Paperback:
    May 2022, 560 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Scott C. Martin
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About this Book

Book Summary

Winner of the 2021 BookBrowse Nonfiction Award

The bestselling author of Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs returns with a gripping account of how Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna and her colleagues launched a revolution that will allow us to cure diseases, fend off viruses, and have healthier babies.

When Jennifer Doudna was in sixth grade, she came home one day to find that her dad had left a paperback titled The Double Helix on her bed. She put it aside, thinking it was one of those detective tales she loved. When she read it on a rainy Saturday, she discovered she was right, in a way. As she sped through the pages, she became enthralled by the intense drama behind the competition to discover the code of life. Even though her high school counselor told her girls didn't become scientists, she decided she would.

Driven by a passion to understand how nature works and to turn discoveries into inventions, she would help to make what the book's author, James Watson, told her was the most important biological advance since his co-discovery of the structure of DNA. She and her collaborators turned ​a curiosity ​of nature into an invention that will transform the human race: an easy-to-use tool that can edit DNA. Known as CRISPR, it opened a brave new world of medical miracles and moral questions.

The development of CRISPR and the race to create vaccines for coronavirus will hasten our transition to the next great innovation revolution. The past half-century has been a digital age, based on the microchip, computer, and internet. Now we are entering a life-science revolution. Children who study digital coding will be joined by those who study genetic code.

Should we use our new evolution-hacking powers to make us less susceptible to viruses? What a wonderful boon that would be! And what about preventing depression? Hmmm…Should we allow parents, if they can afford it, to enhance the height or muscles or IQ of their kids?

After helping to discover CRISPR, Doudna became a leader in wrestling with these moral issues and, with her collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier, won the Nobel Prize in 2020. Her story is a thrilling detective tale that involves the most profound wonders of nature, from the origins of life to the future of our species.

Introduction
Into the Breach

Jennifer Doudna couldn't sleep. Berkeley, the university where she was a superstar for her role in inventing the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR, had just shut down its campus because of the fast-spreading coronavirus pandemic. Against her better judgment, she had driven her son, Andy, a high school senior, to the train station so he could go to Fresno for a robot-building competition. Now, at 2 a.m., she roused her husband and insisted that they retrieve him before the start of the match, when more than twelve hundred kids would be gathering in an indoor convention center. They pulled on their clothes, got in the car, found an open gas station, and made the three-hour drive. Andy, an only child, was not happy to see them, but they convinced him to pack up and come home. As they pulled out of the parking lot, Andy got a text from the team: "Robotics match cancelled! All kids to leave immediately!"

This was the moment, Doudna recalls, that she realized...

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    BookBrowse Awards
    2021

Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Overall, this is an outstanding combination of biography, current events and science writing all in one volume. Being an Isaacson work, there is a lot of material to get through, but it is incredibly readable and engaging. The visual aids (including a graphic that describes exactly how CRISPR works) are especially insightful. While it is a substantial book, The Code Breaker is worth the time investment...continued

Full Review (710 words)

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(Reviewed by Scott C. Martin).

Media Reviews

AARP
Isaacson...offers a startling, insightful look at this lifesaving, hugely significant scientific advancement and the brilliant Doudna, who wrestles with the serious moral questions that accompany her creation. Should this technology be offered to parents to tailor-make their babies into athletes or Einsteins? Who gets altered and saved and why?

Minneapolis Star Tribune
The Code Breaker marks the confluence of perfect writer, perfect subject and perfect timing. The result is almost certainly the most important book of the year.

Scientific American
Isaacson expertly plumbs the moral ambiguity surrounding this new technology.

New York Review of Books
Deftly written, conveying the history of CRISPR and also probing larger themes: the nature of discovery, the development of biotech, and the fine balance between competition and collaboration that drives many scientists.

Oprah Magazine.com
Isaacson’s vivid account is a page-turning detective story and an indelible portrait of a revolutionary thinker who, as an adolescent in Hawai’i, was told that girls don’t do science. Nevertheless, she persisted.

The Washington Post
Isaacson lays everything out with his usual lucid prose; it’s brisk and compelling and even funny throughout. You’ll walk away with a deeper understanding of both the science itself and how science gets done — including plenty of mischief

New Scientist
It is a gripping tale, showing how our new ability to hack evolution will soon start throwing us curveballs.

Booklist (starred review)
In Isaacson's splendid saga of how big science really operates, curiosity and creativity, discovery and innovation, obsession and strong personalities, competitiveness and collaboration, and the beauty of nature all stand out.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A magisterial biography of the co-discoverer of what has been called the greatest advance in biology since the discovery of DNA....Those familiar with college-level biology will have a better time, but nobody will regret the reading experience. A vital book about the next big thing in science—and yet another top-notch biography from Isaacson.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Biographer Isaacson depicts science at its most exhilarating in this lively biography...a gripping account of a great scientific advancement and of the dedicated scientists who realized it.

Author Blurb Atul Gawande
He's done it again. The Code Breaker is another Walter Isaacson must-read. This time he has a heroine who will be for the ages; a worldwide cast of remarkable, fiercely competitive scientists; and a string of discoveries that will change our lives far more than the iPhone did. The tale is gripping. The implications mind-blowing.

Author Blurb Doris Kearns Goodwin
When a great biographer combines his own fascination with science and a superb narrative style, the result is magic. This important and powerful work, written in the tradition of The Double Helix, allows us not only to follow the story of a brilliant and inspired scientist as she engages in a fierce competitive race, but to experience for ourselves the wonders of nature and the joys of discovery.

Author Blurb Jon Meacham
Walter Isaacson is our Renaissance biographer, a writer of unusual range and depth who has plumbed lives of genius to illuminate fundamental truths about human nature. From Leonardo to Steve Jobs, from Benjamin Franklin to Albert Einstein, Isaacson has given us an unparalleled canon of work that chronicles how we have come to live the way we do. Now, in a magnificent, compelling, and wholly original book, he turns his attention to the next frontier: that of gene editing and the role science may play in reshaping the nature of life itself. This is an urgent, sober, accessible, and altogether brilliant achievement.

Reader Reviews

Tony C.

Smart but Accessible
“The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race” by Walter Isaacson takes its science seriously and dumbs down absolutely nothing. I am neither the smartest nor dumbest guy in the room, but I had never heard the ...   Read More
CarolT

Fascinating
A must read. While Doudna is the focus, the real hero is RNA and all the folks who have so single-mindedly spent their lives understanding the genetic code and what that understanding means for all of us, in the context of the last 20 months.

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Beyond the Book

Conflicts Over Credit: CRISPR and HIV

 shaking handsWhen a scientific breakthrough is achieved, it can be a moment of major celebration. Depending on the implications of that advancement, previously unknown individuals can find themselves vaulted into the highest levels of celebrity. Yet, the challenge of deciding who is truly responsible for the scientific advancement can be contentious. Very rarely does one person make a discovery in a vacuum, as other researchers are often working the same problem set. This is seen throughout scientific history and in recent times.

In The Code Breaker, Walter Isaacson explains how the potential for using CRISPR and CaS9 to edit DNA was a significant advancement in gene editing with implications for the future of medicine and humanity. However, no ...

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