Archive for October, 2021

I’ve heard about Walter Isaacson‘s biographies, but had never read one. My dad had read The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race over the summer and sent me a copy because he thought I’d enjoy it, and he was impressed by the stories of the developments in gene science and the potential to protect humans from viruses. If you’ve thought of genetic engineering at all, it’s probably been with some trepidation and uncertainty — it seems like “playing God” in a way, and much of the coverage in the media about it has been relatively alarmist or confusing. This books clears up many of the misconceptions and makes the science a little clearer.

Isaacson introduces Jennifer Doudna’s career in science by describing how as a young girl she read James Watson’s book, The Double Helix and saw, even in the fairly dismissive remarks he made about Rosalind Franklin, the potential for a woman to be a scientific researcher. Doudna went on to a brilliant career, beginning with the discovery of the structure of RNA. In 2020, Doudna, along with her French collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for “development of a method for genomic editing.” Isaacson covers much of her career in The Code Breaker, focusing on the circle of scientists she collaborated or competed with over the decades between her initial work on RNA and the present. At the center of both the book and her career is the way she brought a multidisciplinary and international team together to prove that the protein Cas9, guided by mRNA (messenger RNA, which you may sound familiar from COVID-19 vaccines), can edit a gene by snipping it and fitting programmed DNA into the spot where the snip is. When thought of in terms of snipping and stitching instead of rewriting, this gene editing seems more human and less like messing with evolution and creation, doesn’t it?

From the excitement of discovery Isaacson leads us through the competition between rival labs to publish and to patent the technologies needed to perform this gene editing. And the subsequent efforts to improve upon and expand the discovery, and apply it to real world problems, like curing diseases. He also ventures into the ethical debates and frameworks for setting reasonable limits on gene editing in humans. The idea is to leave the door open to medical breakthroughs without allowing a gene editing free-for-all that may lead to customizable babies. If you like drama, that part of the book may interest you; I found it slow.

Towards the end of the book, the COVID-19 pandemic begins and Doudna pulls together scientists from all over the Bay area to work together in Berkeley to quickly respond. They developed ways to test for COVID and are still working on potential treatments. I found this last part very interesting, and somewhat hopeful. Isaacson, and many of the scientists he got to know as he wrote The Code Breaker, believe the future will be safer for everyone because of the developments of the last few decades and the new spirit of openness and collaboration in science as the world was shaken up by the pandemic.

As Isaacson says, “By honoring CRISPR, a virus-fighting system found in nature, in the midst of a virus pandemic, the Nobel committee reminded us how curiosity-driven basic research can end up having very practical applications. CRISPR and COVID are speeding our entry into a lifescience era. Molecules are becoming the new microchips.” He talks to scientists and “biohackers” who believe that just as the computer era led people to study coding, advances in molecular science will lead more people to study biology, chemistry, and genetics and will lead to personal tools that revolutionize our responses to biological threats to human health the way computers have revolutionized the ways we communicate and share information.

It’s interesting to consider this possibility. It’s also easy to see capitalism reasserting itself over scientific research and universities returning to legal protection of their intellectual property, including work done by their star scientists in well-funded labs. Isaacson did not get into the many pronged misinformation machine that has convinced millions of a whole series of untruths (which I won’t repeat here) about mRNA vaccines. Coupled with an overall decline in science literacy (60% of Americans in 2019 had medium to low science knowledge according to the Pew Research Center), our infodemic, along with decades of gerrymandering, the erosion of voting rights, and the prioritization of profits and power over people doesn’t give me hope that public funding of science will increase. Nor that people will suddenly abandon conspiracy theories and disinformation.

Remember, the previous administration closed a federal science program designed to give us early warning of global pandemics, just before the current pandemic began. And dozens of politicians and celebrities joined together in an anti-vax movement, contributing to the deluge of disinformation and tsunami of pseudoscience that led to the worst outbreaks of measles in the United States in almost 30 years back in 2019. While Doudna’s accomplishments are tremendous, and Isaacson rightly celebrates the people in her orbit who have and continue to make important discoveries that can change the future, they require funding and trust in science.

Maybe science will prevail. But considering the way any national effort to make progress slowing climate change was just scuttled mostly by an egotistical senator in the pay of fossil fuel companies, but also by dozens of senators whose ideology prevents them from supporting such legislation, and considering that a handful of rich nations tried pressuring the UN to “downplay the need to move rapidly away from fossil fuels,” ahead of the latest conference on climate change, I am not as hopeful as Isaacson.

Still, it’s an interesting read. I will probably check out his biography Einstein at some point, which has been a long-term “to read” on my shelf for some time.


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Lots of reviews of Lauren Groff‘s new novel, Matrix, reference her previous work, Fates and Furies, but as I read it, I kept thinking of the first book of Groff’s that I read, Arcadia. Arcadia was about a man who grew up in a utopian compound, and Matrix revisits the idea of an ideal community, this time in a 12th century abbey in England. It’s not ideal when the book opens and Marie de France arrives, sent by Eleanor of Aquitaine at the age of seventeen to be prioress. The abbey is poor and run down and the nuns are ill, old, and poorly organized. Marie, a large, homely woman who has already proven herself capable and strong in her short life, quickly takes things in hand. Matrix follows her life’s story as she makes the abbey prosperous, comes to love the community of nuns she cares for, and develops a distinctly matriarchal faith.

Marie is interesting, and not just because Groff creates a backstory that includes warrior aunts, a fairy ancestor, and women lovers including Queen Eleanor herself. I also enjoyed that Marie is both a smart and worldly leader and a mystic who has visions and writes poetry (the only bit of the real Marie de France’s story that is known). When still young Marie becomes Abbess, she realizes that the church leader with jurisdiction over the abbey “seems to believe this abbey of virgins to be a source of personal wealth.” Her response? “She must draw up herself a dummy account ledger to show the abbey’s great debt, which is false, for, she considers, to counter corruption, a similar corruption is only logical and right.”

Her visions give her spiritual and theological guidance — including an image of Eve and Mary in which Marie comes to see that rather than being the source of mankind’s fall and sinful nature, Eve is the first step towards mankind’s salvation, because she is Mary’s ancestress. But the visions also give her building projects — a labyrinth the cleverly hides the abbey from the well traveled roads which make it vulnerable, a building to house not only the Abbess’s quarters but also well appointed apartments for the wealthy widows who retire to the abbey (with their money) and schoolrooms for the young girls sent to learn how to be fine ladies (who will someday support the abbey they remember fondly), and a lock to harness a nearby marsh’s water supply, to divert it to the Abbey year round.

Marie’s own ambitions get her into trouble from time to time, but she maintains her rule, runs a network of spies in the great world beyond the abbey who keep her one (or more) steps ahead of both the crown and Rome, and manages to value her own abilities and achievements and those of her nuns while also maintaining her belief. She’s an astute manager, trusting her own judgement but also understanding when she needs diplomacy, prayer, or even forgiveness. And when Groff writes of Marie’s visions and views of the world, her prose sings, which is another way this book reminds me of Arcadia.

For Marie, Groff writes, “Good and evil live together; dark and light. Contradictions can be true at once. The world holds a great and pulsing terror at its center. The world is ecstatic in its very deeps.”

That is both beautiful and as true today as it was in the 12th century. This world is both beautiful and scary, and we live with contradictions that are true (and many that, as Marie herself would also affirm, are not). If you’re looking to escape all this into a beautiful, strange, and in its way, uplifting book, Matrix is a great choice. My only quibble is that I’m still considering the ending; I think I understand what Groff intended but it was strangely deflating for me. Still, I very much enjoyed Matrix.

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