Rossdavidh's Reviews > Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome

Gene Machine by Venki Ramakrishnan
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Reading this quite good book, caused me to realize how much we owe to James Watson, he of the famous "Watson and Crick" duo who became famous by discovering the structure of DNA.

But, not because of that. As Ramakrishnan tells so well in this book, once an idea is discoverable, whether the structure of DNA or electricity or radio or the internal combustion engine or even evolution by natural selection, there will be multiple people who will have the potential to discover it. If Watson and Crick had not discovered DNA's structure, Rosalind Franklin or Maurice Wilkins or Linus Pauling or someone else would have published an article doing so, not long after they in fact did. Ramakrishnan's target was the ribosome, that factory that actually uses the genetic code to assemble proteins, and he was most definitely in a race with others to figure out how it was made and how it functioned.

Also, not because he wrote an excellent book explaining how the structure of DNA came to be. Many scientists, before and after, have written essays or books about how they came to the ideas that made them famous. It's well worth reading, just for that, but that is not what was special about James Watson, and if he had not existed then whoever else took his place would likely have told the story somewhere, just as Ramakrishnan has told his story here.

No, the real debt we owe to James Watson is the part that would not have happened if someone else had taken his place, and that is the fact that "The Double Helix" is such a gossipy, snarky, utterly human tale. No other scientist before him, that I am aware of, wrote for popular consumption such an unabashedly human tale of how science actually gets done, full of rivalries and mistakes and emotional conflict and non-scientific concerns intruding into the lives of the people trying to figure out how the world works. But, once Watson had written his book, it appears to me that it made it more acceptable, expected even, that if a great scientist is going to tell their story, they should admit to all of the gossipy, political, emotional, irrational pushing and pulling that can both impede and occasionally propel them on their path to discovery. Ramakrishnan is not, I think, by nature the sort to do that, but he has given us a great tale here, and I think a great part of why is that Watson has made it acceptable to tell a story about science in a way that fills it with humans.

There are rivalries and disappointments and fears and exuberance in Ramakrishnan's tale, and he takes us through it with an excellent mix of science and oh-so-human scientists. There are other scientists on the hunt for the same prize he is, and despite his best efforts to be even-handed you can tell which ones got on his nerves the most. He is quite candid about the role that luck, politics, the "Matthew effect" (success brings you opportunities which brings success which brings...), and all the other things besides being talented, that allow a person to end up in Stockholm accepting a Nobel Prize. He discusses the quite problematic restriction that no more than 3 people can share a prize, and how utterly out of step this is with the way science gets done, often with hundreds and usually with dozens of people involved in an integral way with any truly important discovery.

In a way, that highlights the importance of books like these. The idea of the Scientist Discoverer, like Albert Einstein working nearly alone and figuring it out, is still the impression most people have about how science happens. It is as if we thought Elon Musk was designing and assembling the Tesla car himself, or that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were busy in their garage assembling every Macintosh computer ever sold. We know that the CEO whose face appears on the cover of the magazine is more the surfer perched atop the wave than the actual force propelling the surfboard forward, but with scientists one gets the impression this is not as well understood. Ramakrishnan manages to relate his tale in an enjoyable way, even to a reader like me who could not quite recall what it is that the ribosome was about before I started reading his book. Well done.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
March 23, 2019 – Shelved
March 23, 2019 – Shelved as: white

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message 1: by HBalikov (new)

HBalikov Excellent point about the "mythology" of the "scientist discoverer."


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