Walter Isaacson’s new book, “The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race,” is one of those perfect pieces of nonfiction. Of course it starts at the beginning, both with Doudna’s early life in Hawai’i, and with the initial discoveries of the science of evolution and genes, almost 200 years ago.
Interspersed with the text are photographs of all the scientists and researchers and their labs, as well as diagrams and formulas that gently introduce the curious reader to the subject of genome editing, or CRISPR: Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. Check out page 133 for a color diagram of how the science works.
Forgotten your biology, the double helix, DNA and RNA, and the Human Genome Project? No worries, Isaacson brings you up to speed on everything, including the emotions and competitions surrounding major scientific breakthroughs.
In 2020, Doudna and a colleague, Emmanuelle Charpentier, won the Nobel Prize in chemistry: “This year’s prize is about rewriting the code of life.” You can pick up the book anywhere and start delving into the research, the personalities, the roadblocks, and the practicalities – COVID medicine – and find pure joy in what it takes to come to the end of a struggle.
CRISPR is here to stay, and it’s time to learn how its applications can contribute to a healthier life for all of us.
On a lighter but no less serious note, I’ve found two new works of fiction – “Guncle” by Steven Rowley and “Dear Mrs. Bird” by AJ Pearce – that had me laughing and crying all the way through. How can this be?
The second book is set in World War II London as an aspiring journalist lands a job typing the replies from Mrs. Henrietta Bird, dispenser of advice on topics decidedly not “unpleasant.” “Chin up and keep a stiff upper lip” is about the limit of Mrs. Bird’s tolerance for flighty females.
When our new typist answers those “unpleasant” female queries on her own time, she nearly loses her job. And in the bombing of a certain well-known cafe, she nearly loses her best friend, too.
In “Guncle,” the loss occurs right away as ten-year-old Maisie and six-year-old Grant are sent to Palm Springs to live with gay Uncle Patrick (the GUP) for the summer after their mother, his old best friend, dies. Dad is in drug rehab close by, trying to put the family’s life back together by healing himself in time for school to start in the fall.
The GUP provides much-needed solace and humor as the children adapt to the desert heat – hours in the pool, siestas, late-night stories – celebrate Christmas in July, provide a new home for a small dog with a fierce personality, and gradually deal with the loss of their mother and the addition of a charming and witty “Guncle.”