Reading is one of my passions. At any point in time, I am working through 4 to 6 books in parallel. I read most of them cover to cover, but rarely in one go. I need some variance in my reading to stay focused and find inspiration to move on. The books are usually a mix of novels, autobiographies, and substantive books that cover areas often far away from my areas of expertise. I will read 2-3 chapters in one, and then continue to do the same in another book. Reading keeps me sane, informed, and intellectually active. It also lubricates my thinking. I very much agree with Dostoyevsky who said “when you stop reading, you stop thinking.”
One of the reasons I read extensively and persistently is that I prefer to chew on basic facts and information, and develop my own thoughts about them. Much learning occurs in the process of building knowledge in ones own mind. I read the opinions of others to help fine-tune my own thinking but I will never blindly accept them. I like to check the sources for myself and form my own opinion. We probably should all do more of that before jumping to ill-informed, ill-formed, and hastily-drawn conclusions. Checking sources along with the opinions of others would help all of us obtain more solid understandings. Furthermore, and crucial for this day and age, we would become more information literate in the process.
Let me describe my recent experience with a book, and the impact it made on me and those around me. On the latter, I tend to share and discuss what I read, and that helps me further solidify my own thinking. The book in question is The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson, published in 2021. If I recall correctly, I found it on Bill Gates’ list of books to read. Although the title might suggest a detective novel, the book is anything but. Isaacson is a historian and journalist, and in the book he profiles Jennifer Doubna, the co-inventor (with Emmanuelle Charpentier) of the CRISPR gene-editing technology. The book is a fascinating and accessible read on how the invention came about. With the Covid pandemic and the politically-charged discussions around vaccination, the book was also very informative on the science of (and history behind) mRNA vaccines and the promising future of programmable health.
I read the sizable book cover to cover over a period of 10 days. Some sections I read more than once before moving on; I wanted to make sure that my understanding was crystallizing correctly. The other books I was working through at the same time were The Fall by Albert Camus, Inside The Third Reich by Albert Speer, and Blockchain and Distributed Ledgers by Adrien Treccani and Alexander Lipton.
When I finally got through The Code Breaker, many thoughts came to mind. Some were touched upon in the book, while others were reflections triggered by reading a book on a topic I knew little if anything about. As often is the case, I thought I knew a few things but by the end of the book I realized that I was going to stand on very thin ice if I dared to broach the subject in public. I have quite a bit more reading to do to solidify my understanding, but the book enabled me to construct a rudimentary picture of the field of gene editing.
To illustrate how reading triggers thought, here are 8 topics that I have been reflecting on since closing the book.
Ask big questions
CRISPR would have never seen the light of day if it were not for dedicated scientists who were not afraid to ask and tackle the big questions. Those questions are inherently difficult, but they inspire curious minds to keep digging. Asking big questions keeps one on the path of discovery.
If you do not pursue the big questions, you cannot expect to find big answers. Big questions will be challenging to tackle, and you might not immediately find the answers you are looking for. On occasion, as Jennifer and Emmanuelle did, you do. And when you do, you will change the world. What gene editing will enable us to do is truly mind boggling. What once was science fiction no longer is. Not surprisingly, the duo were awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their work on CRISPR.
As CRISPR’s history also illustrates, big questions do not typically arise at the core of traditional disciplines. As with most innovations and inventions these days, big questions arise at the edge of those disciplines and, because of this, require cross-disciplinary thinking. In the end, gene editing becomes a coding exercise not dissimilar to computer coding, but it took a few scientific detours through microbiology, crystallography, biochemistry, etc. to get there.
The ethical questions
The ability to edit human genes raises lots of ethical questions. When I got to the chapters dealing with them, I thought I would be bored and considered skipping them. I am glad I did not. They were quite a fascinating read. Isaacson does an excellent job in laying out the spectrum of questions, and does so using thought experiments that truly make you think.
The ethical questions are incredibly complex, especially when it comes to inheritable gene editing and the impact that might have on the future of our own species. If, for example, inheritable gene editing had been done generations ago, would Jennifer and Emmanuelle done what they did and discovered what they did? The fact is that the survival of our species very much depends on variations. If we start editing out the quirks of nature, what would be the consequence?
The importance of understanding basic science
Isaacson writes in his book that” great innovations come from understanding basic science.” CRISPR proves that point.
As I have written elsewhere, I believe that training in a basic science is crucial. The argument is not that we should all aim to make meaningful and impactful innovations. A few of us will go on and do just that, but the large majority of us will not. The argument for studying a basic science is that it exposes us to the passion of discovery and the rigor of the scientific process. The former would lubricate our curiosity, and the latter would sharpen our information literacy.
Rivalry versus collaboration, and the pace of discovery
The first part of the book describes the competitive nature of academic research, and how universities build infrastructures to pitch (and protect) their research labs against one another. The race to publish the latest findings and secure patens on the latest inventions is real. The book very much focuses on the race (with many fascinating sprints along the way) between the Broad Institute at Harvard/MIT and Doudna’s lab at UC Berkeley. Competition does advance science, even when egos get bruised along the way.
Fortunate is perhaps not a adjective most of us would use in the context of the Covid pandemic that is still keeping us on edge. But the pandemic provided an opportunity- well, more of an urgent need – to collaborate and get life-saving vaccines out of the labs as quickly as possible. The book describes how, in the background of the battles for the commercial rights to CRISPR and Nobel prizes, the main characters came together to help humanity. The book does not go into detail, but I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall of the offices of the legal counsels when this reality was unfolding.
What the book does suggest is that in this particular case, speed rested with collaboration and not competition. When it mattered most, battle-hardened rivalries were put aside, and the great minds got together to help us all. There are lessons to be learned in this, some of which I am still weaving together.
Don’t follow the pack
When everyone was pursuing DNA because of the promise it showed, Jennifer stuck to studying RNA. In hindsight, it was a smart move, but I doubt that it was a conscious strategic decision as Isaacson makes it sound. I believe that Jennifer followed her passions, stuck with them, and stumbled on something extraordinary.
Great scientists are motivated by intellectual curiosity and nothing else. Sure, they are human and will enjoy the limelight but CRISPR would have never been invented were it not for great minds putting on lab coats at any time of the day or night. It required hunkering down in research labs to squeeze out another experiment on the long and arduous road of scientific discovery.
Snooping around alleys no one else is wandering into can make a difference. In the case of CRISPR, the unpopular RNA alley Jennifer played in turned out to be a runway for great discoveries and scientific progress.
When I had finished the book, it dawned on me that apart from Jennifer, the author, and the head of the Broad Institute, almost all the main characters in the CRISPR cast were foreigners growing roots in the US’s scientific community. Something to ponder over, especially in the context of the battle for global talent and the politics of the day.
Learn to code
When I was in college, coding computers was a basic skill needed to do any serious data analysis. Being a whizz at matrix algebra, I got myself to become an expert coder in Fortran, the language to make mainframe computers do their magic at that time. I got to Thep point that I could make these machines do pretty much anything I wanted them to do. As so often is the case, a skill in the hands of a curious mind leads to trouble quickly. But coding trained my mind to become analytic, as it requires you to structure problems in a way that they can be solved easily. My coding skills have waned, but my analytic mind is still at it.
Computer coding is all the rage, and many parents want their kids to pick up the skill. I am all for it. Not that I believe that computer coding will pretty much be the only job left down the road. It is more for the other skills one acquires in the process of learning to code. As I am a living proof of, coding trains the mind to be structured and analytic, and that helps in any problem-solving context.
But coding is no longer limited to computers. Reading the book, it made me realize that we are now at the dawn of us being able to code humanity and its future. Biotech has become a data science, and CRISPR is a tool that will enable us to edit and code human genes. The exciting promise is that we will be able to spare future generations from life-threatening genetic deficiencies. We will also be able to enhance our human capabilities. For example, as Isaacson points out, the possibility is within reach to create soldiers with natural night vision. This raises all kinds of ethical and existential questions, but it is clear that genetic coding and biohacking have plenty of mojo.
As I got immersed in the book, my 7-years old daughter got curious about what it was that got me so hooked. On occasion, she would come and sit next to me and read along as I turned the pages (she often does that, and I encourage her to do so). She obviously did not understand much of what she was reading, but she kept asking questions. I tried to answer them in a language that she would understand. That was a good check on where my own understanding of the subject matter was at.
When I did not quite know how to explain something (or when I saw her eyes glazing over when I tried to), we would search online for educational videos on the topic. Hard to believe, but this was collaborative learning at its best. We will see much more of that as we all get more immersed into lifelong learning. A 7-years old rarely asks big questions but they ask all the right questions that make us realize how limited our own understanding is, and how much more we still have to learn.
Plenty to reflect on. Reading does stimulate thinking, and that in turn galvanizes learning and understanding . Will I reread the book? I probably will at some point. I often read a book again but at a different point in time. The Camus book I am reading is one that I read when I was much younger. I am reading it again because I did not realize before that Camus wrote that book during and in the immediate aftermath of WWII. I wanted to see if knowing that would give me a different perspective on this literary masterpiece.
My experience is unequivocal: reading leads to thought and reflection, and those form the basis for learning and understanding. I will keep reading, and hope that my eyes will allow me to do so. My siblings and I suffer from a genetic defect that affects our vision as we age. Our dad lost his eyesight in his seventies. Reading The Code Breaker gives me hope that – if and when help is needed – gene editing will come to the rescue and enable me to indulge further in my passion for reading.