Life’s Greatest Secret

Matthew Cobb

Why I looked at this book

This has been shortlisted for the 2015 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books , but I had also noted it as a book to read. It looks like it deals with the wider view of the cracking of the genetic code, going beyond Watson and Crick's discovery the structure of DNA to look at how people's way of thinking about genetics changed during the middle of the 20th Century.

First impressions

After a short foreword, the book dives straight into the history of genetics, looking at why Mendel decide to start studying peas. Sometimes diving in like this leaves the reader a bit disoriented, but I think that in this case it will be OK. The second chapter gets on to the second thread of the book, that of the nature of information and how it applies to genetics. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the book.

Note:Sample 1st chapter available here, but more of the book is available to read in the sample at Amazon

Main review

The first few chapters of the book alternate between the two threads, genetics and information theory. On the information side we find out about the work of Claude Shannon, Norbert Wiener and John von Neumann. This was the time when computers were coming into being, and people thought that the related theory of information would have applications throughout the sciences. One thing I'd have liked to see more discussion of in the book is people's thoughts on self reproducing systems - my understanding is that to start with it was seen as impossible to devise such a system.

On the genetics side we read about the great resistance to the idea that it was DNA, rather than proteins, which carried the genetic information. But eventually DNA was accepted and the race was on to decipher its structure, finally won, as everyone knows, by Watson and Crick. Incidentally, the discussion of the work of Rosalind Franklin increases my suspicion that the idea of some sort of feud between her and Watson and Crick was very much an invention after the fact.

The main theme of the book is the cracking of the genetic code - how the bases in DNA determine the amino acid chain in proteins. There was a belief that it ought to be possible to deduce much of this from theoretical considerations, but in the end it was up to the experimentalists, in particular Marshall Nirenberg, to work it out in the early 1960's. The last part of the book looks at what has happened in the field since that time, although I felt that it concentrated on recent work a bit too much. I'd have liked more on what happened in the years following the cracking of the code, in particular the work of Jacob and Monod.

So there are a few things I think that could have been added to the book, but no book can be exhaustive, so that isn't really a criticism. I feel that it is well worth reading, and (although I haven't read all of the contenders yet) so far it would be my choice as winner of the 2015 Winton prize.
Coming soon:
Reviews Elsewhere
Why not follow the Twitter feed?