"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.
Author Walter Isaacson is one of the nation's premier biographers. In studies of Steven Jobs, Albert Einstein and others, he's demonstrated an uncanny ability to do exhaustive research, organize it all and present it lucidly, separating wheat from chaff.
He puts all those talents to good use in discussing the monumental achievements of Jennifer Doudna, a salmon who swam upstream against the flow of male chauvinism and spawned … Well, she spawned the future.
Doudna grew up in Hawaii and became interested in science after reading James Watson's "The Double Helix." She was particularly interested in the role played by Rosalind Franklin, whose data Watson used without her permission.
"What mainly struck me," Doudna told Isaacson, "was that a woman could be a great scientist."
It was possible, but not easy. Her high school guidance counselor told her: "Don't you know women don't do science?"
But she persevered, earning a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Harvard Medical School in 1989. After several stops, including an assistant professorship at Yale, she was offered her own lab at UC-Berkeley, entered into a long-distance partnership with French biochemist Emmanuelle Charpentier and, along with her, invented a technology called CRISPR-Cas9 that could be programmed to edit targeted DNA molecules.
The discovery opened up the world of biotechnology, raising the possibility that many diseases could be cured and that life could be extended.
It is Isaacson's genius that he explains this complicated process — and how Doudna reached it starting from ground zero — in clear, concise, layperson's terms.
But he doesn't stop there. Isaacson also discusses a host of unresolved moral and ethical issues that Doudna's scientific work has raised. He quotes a young man who has sickle cell anemia but who says he doesn't wants a cure, telling documentary filmmakers he has gained a great deal having it, "I learned patience with everyone. I learned how just to be positive."
Notes Isaacson, "challenges and so-called disabilities often built character." He wonders whether FDR would have been FDR without polio. Or whether Miles Davis would have been Miles Davis with sickle cell.
There is not only the issue of how to decide whether a procedure should be done, but the question of who makes that decision. National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins told the author: "Evolution has been working toward optimizing the human genome for 3.85 billion years. Do we really think that some small group of human genome tinkerers could do better without all sorts of consequences?"
Even if we resolve what tinkering is permitted, how do we resolve who gets it? CRISPR treatments are expensive. One for sickle cell costs $1 million. Do only the wealthy get the benefits?
Are we in an era where people can order designer babies? Part of what makes the book so timely is that now is when these issues need to be discussed.
In 2020, Doudna and Charpentier were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry. Promotion-wise for a writer, that's like hitting the Powerball.
Curt Schleier is a book critic in New Jersey.
The Code Breaker
By: Walter Isaacson
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 560 pages. $35.