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Life's Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code

3.95  ·  Rating details ·  208 ratings  ·  26 reviews

Scientists and laypeople alike now know that our genomes contain information that can help us to interpret our evolutionary past. Just a half century ago, this idea was revolutionary. In April 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick published in Nature their groundbreaking work revealing the double helix structure of DNA. While this discovery received wide attention from both
Hardcover, 464 pages
Published July 7th 2015 by Basic Books (first published June 11th 2015)
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3.95  · 
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 ·  208 ratings  ·  26 reviews

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Tate Quinton
Sep 09, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Assumes a certain level of knowledge of genetics; that being said it is one of the best histories of the subject that I have read. The first 2/3 of the book cover the period from the rediscovery of Mendel in 1900 to the discovery of the 20th/ last amino acid's DNA code in 1966. The last 1/3 of the book covers the next 49 years (to the present). Cobb tells this story in a lucid and compelling way.
Daniel R.
Dec 31, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: mos
An engaging history of how we came to understand our genetic code. One aspect that I really enjoyed was the realistic examples of success, failure, and luck along the way: "scientists spent their time arguing over something that now seems blindingly obvious" and "like all the other theoretical schemes, this one was ingenious, but wrong." Overall a great read.
Jeffrey Cavanaugh
Jul 19, 2015 rated it liked it

A history of our understanding of DNA and molecular genetics from the 1940s onward as told by a working geneticist. Although the book is a bit technical at times and assumes knowledge of college-level biology, it's a very good review of a subject that will grow increasingly important in the future. If you enjoy reading about how science develops knowledge over time, this is a good book to read.
Dhairyashil Ghatage
Jul 08, 2019 rated it really liked it

The evolution of the genetic code was therefore essential for life as we know it. It truly is life’s greatest secret.

The obvious facts of today were once contentions between great minds for prolonged time. The science history book 'Life's Greatest Secret' by Matthew Cobb takes readers on the decades long journey of cracking the genetic code. The old science has many stories of isolated individuals making breakthroughs and current works are mostly driven by collaborations that may span over con
Feb 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Great look at the discovery and role of DNA

I’ve read a couple of good books on the history of molecular biology: the appropriately-named “A history of molecular biology” by Michel Morange and “The 8th day of creation” by Horace Freeland Judson. Both were very good but what sets Matthew Cobb’s book apart is its more single-minded focus. I had previously read “The egg and sperm race” by Cobb and loved it. Unlike that book which was written in a way that required no biology background, “Life’s grea
Neeraja Sankaran
Dec 20, 2017 rated it really liked it
Good broad quasi-insider's perspective on the history of one aspect of molecular biology. (I say quasi because Cobb is a biologist but was not part of the teams he writes about, as far as know). As I did with another book, here's the link to my academic review essay of this book (Apologies if this linke appears more than once but since said review covers three books its only fair to give them all equal footage... Plus added readership for my own writing!)

Link for review: Academic review: http://
Aug 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: math-science
I really enjoyed the main body of this book, about the race to crack the genetic code, and was pleased it wasn't just another rehashing of the Watson and Crick work. I thought it was a brave decision on the author's part to give generous space to cybernetics, and information theory, when (spoiler) information theory turned out to be a blind alley - this was a very good illustration of how 'top down' thinking can be unhelpful.. I would have preferred a second volume dealing, in the same depth, wi ...more
Mizrob A.
Nov 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I went in thinking it was just Watson-Crick story, but to my delight I was wrong. The book covers genetics from rediscovery of Mendel's work to very recent times. There are books (book categories) that cover science and history, but most of them are sloppy at one of the domains (at best). Matthew Cobb's book is a thorough history of genetics and at the same time great explanation of the solid science. Read this fantastic essay on Central Dogma and Crick to get a sense of the book: https://journa ...more
Robin Larson
Apr 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I cracked up at the last page (besides appendices) of this book. How to make a genetics nerd happy: end your book about the genetic code with a stop codon.

I really liked this book. It delved enough into the science that I wasn’t being talked down to like many popular science books, but it also talked about the circumstances that made events okay out the way they did. This was a fascinating read.
James Che
Jan 12, 2019 rated it it was ok
After reading the Double Helix by James Watson, I find this book a bit repetitive and didn't enjoy it as much. I feel a bit drowned out by the number of new names and characters in the story. This said, I don't see how a historic account of these events can be written without this feature. So maybe I'm just not a big fan of this genre.. I did not finish this book.
Aditi (Scientist in my free time)
Royal Society Science Book Prize Nominee (2015),
Royal Society of Biology General Book Prize Nominee (2016)
Sep 28, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A delightful, mesmerising account of the incredible race to crack the genetic code and understand how heredity works. I think this is one of the most definitive historical accounts of the remarkable "golden age" of molecular biology, although I am yet to read the other classic tome in this category, Horace Judson's "The Eighth Day of Creation", so take my opinion with a pinch of salt :)

The personalities described in the book are as amazing and eclectic as the story itself. Physicists, mathematic
Nov 04, 2015 rated it it was ok
This book had a fairly good history of the progress made in figuring out how genes, DNA, and RNA work up until the 1960’s and 1970’s. However, once the discussion got to the more recent history I found the book lost focus. I don’t have a real strong background in biology and the author did not provide a good introduction to a simplified model of how DNA, messenger RNA, and the production of amino acids and proteins works. He should have done a better job of describing this model in lay terms bef ...more
Nov 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: scientists
This is a really good book for those keenly interested in the history of genetics. I listened to the audio book version for 14 hours and when I finished, I listened to the whole 14 hours again because this book is so packed with scientific detail.
The detail is very technical and if you are not a scientist yourself this book may very well be too technical for a full appreciation.
I enjoyed this work so much I have quickly read it again for the third time. It is just packed with information explain
Mar 15, 2016 rated it it was ok
I would have probably cut 75% of this book if I were to edit it for readability. It was very poorly organized (I suppose Cobb was going for loosely chronological), and had no transitions. There were plenty of citations, but the information was barely strung together, as if Cobb spent so much time researching that he forgot to actually rephrase the information into a palpable format. It also did not do much of anything to draw the reader in, other than presenting an antidote here or there. If it ...more
Ginger Campbell
Way back when I first started podcasting, Matthew Cobb was my very first guest on Books and Ideas. Now he has a new book out, which was just as compelling, if not more so. I am looking forward to having him back on my podcast.
Marc Oliver
This is a fairly interesting history lesson about all the progress having been made concerning the understanding of heredity and DNA since the 1940’s to present day. For my taste fewer citations and more actual storytelling would have served the purpose even better. But nonetheless an interesting read.
Steve Gross
Mar 12, 2016 rated it liked it
History of DNA. Two big flaws in this book: first, the classic science writer's mistake of not introducing and explaining scientific terms upon first use. Second, for some reason, the author tries very hard to attach information theory to genetics and it seems forced.
Aug 07, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Science detailed enough to be engrossing.
Sep 28, 2015 rated it really liked it
Much more interesting than the self-aggrandising moment-of-genius story of the double helix. And Francis Crick is amazing...
Aalap Chikhalikar
Oct 20, 2015 rated it really liked it
Excellent overview of the discovery of DNA with the various characters. Very detailed, allowed me to re-learn a lot of the biology concepts I had learnt earlier.
Sep 13, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
Really interesting account of the discovery of the double helix and genetic code.
Aug 13, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
William Hearst
Aug 19, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Reads like a detective story, with extraordinary personalities. One picks up a lot of modern biology along the way.
Bogoljub Trickovic
rated it it was amazing
Jun 24, 2015
rated it it was amazing
May 03, 2016
rated it really liked it
Sep 09, 2016
Pat Stuart
rated it it was amazing
Oct 29, 2018
Jim Osborne
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Jul 18, 2018
Murdo Morrison
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Jun 06, 2016
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Brain Science Pod...: Books and Ideas #60 with Matthew Cobb 1 6 Dec 17, 2015 05:24PM  

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Prof. Matthew Cobb is a geneticist with an interest in the French Resistance.
“The genetic code is a product of biology and is messy, illogical and inelegant. It is highly redundant, but to bewilderingly varied degrees: one amino acid (leucine) has six codons, whereas another (tryptophan) has only one.” 0 likes
“As Jacob put it in 1977, natural selection does not design, it tinkers with what is available.” 0 likes
More quotes…