Siddhartha Mukherjee, an oncologist-turned-writer who told the story of cancer in “The Emperor of All Maladies,” has written a new book about the tiny mechanisms that shape living things — our genes.
Writers who dare to interpret science for the rest of us are few and far between. For one thing, it’s difficult — science has its own languages, lingo and code. For another thing, science can be tough material to translate, requiring feats of memorization, logic and reasoning most of us would rather leave to the lab rats.
Siddhartha Mukherjee, an oncologist-turned-writer, has made it his life’s work to bridge this gap. With his first book, “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” he succeeded, I suspect beyond his wildest dreams. It was both a Pulitzer Prize-winner and became the basis for a Ken Burns documentary.
In “The Gene: An Intimate History” (Scribner, 592 pp., $32), Mukherjee wades even further into the scientific weeds to write the story of the tiny mechanisms that shape living things — the gene, the unit of life’s building blocks that determines the nature of how that life unfolds. (He’ll be at Town Hall on May 23.)
The author of “The Gene” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 23, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., as part of the Seattle Arts and Lectures series. Bob Waterston, professor and chair of the department of genome sciences at the University of Washington, will moderate a Q&A session following Mukherjee’s presentation. Tickets are $5-$85; for more information, go to lectures.org or call 206-621-2230.
Reading “The Gene” is like taking a course from a brilliant and passionate professor who is just sure he can make you understand what he’s talking about. Part of you is thrilled to be along for the ride. Part of you is dreading the test.
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Mukherjee’s accounts of the genetic inheritance of his own family, including inherited mental illness, are riveting (this guy needs to write his memoirs; I would certainly read them). He is the grandson of a couple displaced by India’s partition, and his descriptions of his relatives, his native India and its fantastic rate of change pulse with life.
He traces humanity’s slow discovery of genetic inheritance, from the dawning recognition that some human illnesses like hemophilia are inherited; to Mendel’s breeding and cataloging of peas and their mutations; to the fruit-fly experiments we had to read about in college; to James Watson, Frances Crick and Rosalind Franklin’s discovery of the double helix, the staircaselike base pairs of DNA.
His chapters on the eugenics movement of the 20th century, which fueled the notion that you could “breed” humanity into a superior form, are enlightening and horrifying, even 70 years after Nazi scientists’ grotesque experiments on prisoners were exposed.
One revelation I walked away with after finishing “The Gene” was what a tedious business laboratory science is. “Creativity doesn’t fade, but stamina does,” Mukherjee writes. ”Science is a long-distance sport. To produce that single illuminating experiment, a thousand nonilluminating experiments have to be sent into the trash; it is battle between nature and nerve.”
Another: the sheer unfairness of the terrible diseases suffered by children with inherited genetic defects, and the heroic (if sometimes ill-fated and self-interested) efforts of scientists and physicians to find cures.
For the potential reader, the virtues of “The Gene” have to be weighed against the fact that there are passages like this: “To make an RNA copy of a gene, the cell used a rather simple transposition: every A,C,T, and G in a gene was copied to an A, C, U, and G in the messenger RNA (i.e., ACT CCT GGG —> ACU CCU GGG).” At this point in college I would have dropped out and signed up for music appreciation.
“The Gene” has me more informed, and more worried. The final chapters cover developments that, after the recent mapping of the human genome, will allow mankind to manipulate its own genetic code.
Mukherjee has this to say: “In 1990, writing about the Human Genome Project, the worm geneticist John Sulston wondered about the philosophical quandary raised by an intelligent organism that has ‘learned to read its own instructions.’ But an infinitely deeper quandary is raised when an intelligent organism learns to write its own instructions.”
The quandaries are upon us — all you have to do is read the daily paper. “The Gene” is excellent preparation for all the quandaries to come.