Corrected: ‘Life’s Greatest Secret’ by Matthew Cobb

An earlier version of this post was published by mistake. This is the corrected version. Featured image credit:

When you write a book like Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History, the chance of a half-success is high. You will likely only partly please your readers instead of succeeding or even failing completely. Why? Because the scope of your work will be your biggest enemy, and in besting this enemy, you will at various points be forced to find a fine balance between breadth and depth. I think the author was not just aware of this problem but embraced it: The Gene is a success for having been written. Over 490 pages, Mukherjee weaves together a social, political and technical history of the genome, and unravels how developments from each strain have fed into the others. The effect is for it to have become a popular choice among biology beginners but a persistent point of contention among geneticists and other researchers. However, that it has been impactful has been incontestable.

At the same time, the flipside of such a book on anything is its shadow, where anything less ambitious or even less charming can find itself languishing. This I think is what has become of Life’s Greatest Secret by Matthew Cobb. Cobb, a zoologist at the University of Manchester, traces the efforts of scientists through the twentieth century to uncover the secrets of DNA. To be sure, this is a journey many authors have retraced, but what Cobb does differently are broadly two things. First: he sticks to the participants and the progress of science, and doesn’t deviate from this narrative, which can be hard to keep interesting. Second: he combines his profession as a scientist and his education as an historian to stay aware, and keep the reader aware, of the anthropology of science.

On both counts – of making the science interesting while tasked with exploring an history that can become confusing – Cobb is assisted by the same force that acted in The Gene‘s favour. Mukherjee banked on the intrigues inherent in a field of study that has evolved to become extremely influential as well as controversial to get the reader in on the book’s premise; he didn’t have to spend too much effort convincing a reader why books like his are important. Similarly, Life’s Greatest Secret focuses on those efforts to explore the DNA that played second fiddle to the medicinal applications of genetics in The Gene but possess intrigues of their own. And because Cobb is a well-qualified scientist, he is familiar with the various disguises of hype and easily cuts through them – as well as teases out and highlights less well-known .

For example, my favourite story is of the Matthaei-Nirenberg experiment in 1961 (chapter 10, Enter The Outsiders). Marshall Nirenberg was the prime mover in this story, which was pegged on the race to map the nucleotide triplets to the amino acids they coded for. The experiment was significant because it ignored one of Francis Crick’s theories, popular at the time, that a particular kind of triplet couldn’t code for an amino acid. The experiment roundly drubbed this theory, and in the process delivered a much-needed dent to the circle of self-assured biologists who took Crick’s words as gospel. Another way the experiment triumphed was by showing that ‘outsiders’ (i.e. non-geneticists like the biochemists that Nirenberg and Heinrich) could also contribute to DNA research, and how an acceptance of this fact was commonly preceded by resentment from the wider community. Cobb writes:

Matthew Meselson later explained the widespread surprise that was felt about Nirenberg’s success, in terms of the social dynamics of science: “… there is a terrible snobbery that either a person who’s speaking is someone who’s in the club and you know him, or else his results are unlikely to be correct. And here was some guy named Marshall Nirenberg; his results were unlikely to be correct, because he wasn’t in the club. And nobody bothered to be there to hear him.”

This explanation is reinforced by a private letter to Crick, written in November 1961 by the Nobel laureate Fritz Lipmann, which celebrated the impact of Nirenberg’s discovery but nevertheless referred to him as ‘this fellow Nirenberg’. In October 1961, Alex Rich wrote to Crick praising Nirenberg’s contribution but wondering, quite legitimately, ‘why it took the last year or two for anyone to try the experiment, since it was reasonably obvious’. Jacob later claimed that the Paris group had thought about it but only as a joke – ‘we were absolutely convinced that nothing would have come from that’, he said – presumably because Crick’s theory of a commaless code showed that a monotonous polynucleotide signal was meaningless. Brenner was frank: ‘It didn’t occur to us to use synthetic polymers.’ Nirenberg and Matthaei had seen something that the main participants in the race to crack the genetic code had been unable to imagine. Some later responses were less generous: Gunther Stent of the phage group implied to generations of students who read his textbook that the whole thing had happened more or less by accident, while others confounded the various phases of Matthaei and Nirenberg’s work and suggested that the poly(U) had been added as a negative control, which was not expected to work.

A number of such episodes studded throughout the book make it an invaluable addition to a science-enthusiast’s bookshelf. In fact, if something has to be wrong at all, it’s the book’s finishing. In a move that is becoming custom, the last hundred or so pages are devoted to discussing genetic modification and CRISPR/Cas9, a technique and a tool that will surely shape the future of modern genetics but in a way nobody is quite sure of yet. This uncertainty is pretty well-established in the sense that it’s okay to be confused about where the use of these entities is taking us. However, this also means that every detailed discussion about these entities has become repetitive. Neither Cobb nor Mukherjee are able to add anything new on this front that, in some sense, hasn’t already been touched upon. (Silver lining: the books do teach us to better articulate our confusion.)

Verdict: 4/5