The bestselling author of Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs returns with a gripping account of how Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna and her colleagues launched a revolution that will allow us to cure diseases, fend off viruses, and have healthier babies.
When Jennifer Doudna was in sixth grade, she came home one day to find that her dad had left a paperback titled The Double Helix on her bed. She put it aside, thinking it was one of those detective tales she loved. When she read it on a rainy Saturday, she discovered she was right, in a way. As she sped through the pages, she became enthralled by the intense drama behind the competition to discover the code of life. Even though her high school counselor told her girls didn't become scientists, she decided she would.
Driven by a passion to understand how nature works and to turn discoveries into inventions, she would help to make what the book's author, James Watson, told her was the most important biological advance since his co-discovery of the structure of DNA. She and her collaborators turned "a curiosity" of nature into an invention that will transform the human race: an easy-to-use tool that can edit DNA. Known as CRISPR, it opened a brave new world of medical miracles and moral questions.
The development of CRISPR and the race to create vaccines for coronavirus will hasten our transition to the next great innovation revolution. The past half-century has been a digital age, based on the microchip, computer, and internet. Now we are entering a life-science revolution. Children who study digital coding will be joined by those who study genetic code.
Should we use our new evolution-hacking powers to make us less susceptible to viruses? What a wonderful boon that would be! And what about preventing depression? Should we allow parents, if they can afford it, to enhance the height or muscles or IQ of their kids?
After helping to discover CRISPR, Doudna became a leader in wrestling with these moral issues and, with her collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier, won the Nobel Prize in 2020. Her story is a thrilling detective tale that involves the most profound wonders of nature, from the origins of life to the future of our species.
Walter Isaacson, University Professor of History at Tulane, has been CEO of the Aspen Institute, chairman of CNN, and editor of Time magazine. He is the author of Leonardo da Vinci; Steve Jobs; Einstein: His Life and Universe; Benjamin Franklin: An American Life; and Kissinger: A Biography. He is also the co-author of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made.
"Isaacson's vivid account is a page-turning detective story and an indelible portrait of a revolutionary thinker who, as an adolescent in Hawai'i, was told that girls don't do science. Nevertheless, she persisted."
– Oprah Magazine.com
"The Code Breaker marks the confluence of perfect writer, perfect subject and perfect timing. The result is almost certainly the most important book of the year."
– Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Isaacson captures the scientific process well, including the role of chance. The hard graft at the bench, the flashes of inspiration, the importance of conferences as cauldrons of creativity, the rivalry, sometimes friendly, sometimes less so, and the sense of common purpose are all conveyed in his narrative. The Code Breaker describes a dance to the music of time with these things as its steps, which began with Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel and shows no sign of ending."
– The Economist
"Isaacson lays everything out with his usual lucid prose; it's brisk and compelling and even funny throughout. You'll walk away with a deeper understanding of both the science itself and how science gets done – including plenty of mischief."
– The Washington Post
"This story was always guaranteed to be a page-turner in [Isaacson's] hands."
– The Guardian
"The Code Breaker unfolds as an enthralling detective story, crackling with ambition and feuds, laboratories and conferences, Nobel laureates and self-taught mavericks. The book probes our common humanity without ever dumbing down the science, a testament to Isaacson's own genius on the page."
– O Magazine
"Deftly written, conveying the history of CRISPR and also probing larger themes: the nature of discovery, the development of biotech, and the fine balance between competition and collaboration that drives many scientists."
– New York Review of Books
"The Code Breaker is in some respects a journal of our 2020 plague year."
– The New York Times
"Walter Isaacson is our Renaissance biographer, a writer of unusual range and depth who has plumbed lives of genius to illuminate fundamental truths about human nature. From Leonardo to Steve Jobs, from Benjamin Franklin to Albert Einstein, Isaacson has given us an unparalleled canon of work that chronicles how we have come to live the way we do. Now, in a magnificent, compelling, and wholly original book, he turns his attention to the next frontier: that of gene editing and the role science may play in reshaping the nature of life itself. This is an urgent, sober, accessible, and altogether brilliant achievement."
– Jon Meacham
"When a great biographer combines his own fascination with science and a superb narrative style, the result is magic. This important and powerful work, written in the tradition of The Double Helix, allows us not only to follow the story of a brilliant and inspired scientist as she engages in a fierce competitive race, but to experience for ourselves the wonders of nature and the joys of discovery."
– Doris Kearns Goodwin
"He's done it again. The Code Breaker is another Walter Isaacson must-read. This time he has a heroine who will be for the ages; a worldwide cast of remarkable, fiercely competitive scientists; and a string of discoveries that will change our lives far more than the iPhone did. The tale is gripping. The implications mind-blowing."
– Atul Gawande
"An extraordinary book that delves into one of the most path-breaking biological technologies of our times and the creators who helped birth it. This brilliant book is absolutely necessary reading for our era."
– Siddhartha Mukherjee
"Now more than ever we should appreciate the beauty of nature and the importance of scientific research; This book and Jennifer Doudna's career show how thrilling it can be to understand how life works."
– Sue Desmond-Hellmann
"An extraordinarily detailed and revealing account of scientific progress and competition that grants readers behind-the-scenes access to the scientific process, which the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us remains opaque to the wider public. It also provides lessons in science communication that go beyond the story itself."
– Science Magazine
"An indispensable guide to the brave [...] new world we have entered."
– Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"A vital book about the next big thing in science – and yet another top-notch biography from Isaacson."
– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"In Isaacson's splendid saga of how big science really operates, curiosity and creativity, discovery and innovation, obsession and strong personalities, competitiveness and collaboration, and the beauty of nature all stand out."
– Booklist (starred review)
"Isaacson depicts science at its most exhilarating in this lively biography of Jennifer Doudna, the winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in medicine for her work on the CRISPR system of gene editing [...] The result is a gripping account of a great scientific advancement and of the dedicated scientists who realized it."
– Publisher's Weekly (starred review)
"Isaacson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of best sellers Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs, offers a startling, insightful look at this lifesaving, hugely significant scientific advancement and the brilliant Doudna, who wrestles with the serious moral questions that accompany her creation. Should this technology be offered to parents to tailor-make their babies into athletes or Einsteins? Who gets altered and saved and why?"
"A brilliant and engaging book. There are many quotable gems but I have chosen one sentence from the epilogue that epitomizes not only Doudna but also Isaacson himself, whose book title ends with a hortatory claim that CRISPR affects the future of the human race: 'To guide us, we will need not only scientists, but humanists. And most important, we will need people who feel comfortable in both words, like Jennifer Doudna.'"
– Policy Magazine
"Mr. Isaacson is a great storyteller and a national treasure – like Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and of course his latest subject, Jennifer Doudna."
– The East Hampton Star
"The journalist who told the life stories of Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs is back with a timely biography of Jennifer Doudna, PhD, winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry. It's a fast-paced account of her life as a pathbreaking scientist on CRISPR – and how gene editing could alter all life as we know it."
"This challenging, fascinating story examines Doudna's background and excavates the moral quandaries she grapples with as her creation opens up more and more avenues for scientific advancement."
"It is a gripping tale, showing how our new ability to hack evolution will soon start throwing us curveballs."
– New Scientist
"[A] fascinating story [...] [Isaacson's] unique skill as a master storyteller of scientific development over the centuries has educated not only his fellow Baby Boomers, but also succeeding generations, helping people of all ages and backgrounds travel down the long and winding road toward understanding how life works."
– Washington Independent Review of Books
"[A] marvelous biography [...] With his dynamic and formidable style, Isaacson explains the long scientific journey that led to this tool's discovery and the exciting developments that have followed [...] Isaacson is truly an immersive tour guide, combining the energy of a TED Talk with the intimacy of a series of fireside chats [...] For readers seeking to understand the many twists, turns and nuances of the biotechnology revolution, there's no better place to turn than The Code Breaker."
" Isaacson expertly plumbs the moral ambiguity surrounding this new technology."
– Scientific American
"A riveting expedition through biochemistry, structural biology, and academic politics that transcends the traditional scientific detective story and captures the raw, magical enthusiasm of living pioneers like Doudna and her colleagues."
– New York Journal of Books
"Isaacson senses a more collaborative spirit between the rivals that will surely pay dividends come the next pandemic [...] The Code Breaker is a true celebration of science and scientists, for all their flaws and jealousies."
– Nature Reviews Chemistry