Book review 3: Sydney Brenner – A Biography

I’m reading more and more often now, and continuously buy book from amazon, on hardcover or kindle version. One of the latest is this one:

Sydney-Brenner-Friedberg-Errol-9780879699475

“Sydney Brenner : A biography” by Errol Friedberg. (Amazon link here)

What did I think about it ? 

LOVED IT !  Sydner Brenner is one of these scientists that enters in the “living legends” category. If you wouldn’t know he still lives on the same planet then us (and gives conferences), you would bet this book describes a fictional and slightly unreal character.

I read it more like a historic novel about molecular biology then a biography; and was totally hooked to the story. For the biologists of my age (25), DNA, RNA, PCR, molecular cloning, sequencing genomes, are stuff we learned from text books as undergrads, without realizing it was such recent history. I still have a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that 40-50 years ago, people where trying to figure the very basics of DNA, genes, genetic code, mutations, etc … 

When reading the book, you are not even tempted to think  “come onnnn, how was that not obvious to you, geniuses ?” or be bored, because it’s written so well that you forget about your own knowledge, and “live” the discoveries with Brenner, Watson, Crick, Nirenberg, and so on. Seriously they could make a nerdy TV Show out of this. 

And you realize (because you tend to forget) that it’s easy for no one in science, not even “geniuses”. The chapter describing Brenner and Jacob doing the “Tape experiment” in California was an eye opener. For a month, they did not get any results and where completly depressed about it. But they did this “extra-mile”; taking a deep breath (at the beach); and going to the lab one more time. And make it work. Good to remember it when stuff fails.

Aside of the anecdote, the book is literally a journey trough Brenner’s scientific, from school in South Africa to Singapour & beyond. From the birth or molecular biology to next-generation sequencing. 

I learned so many things reading it, but also laughed a lot; because Brenner seems to be one quirky and funny fellow. One anecdote I can remember is this fake “personal communication” they put as a reference in a 70 pages long article as being from “Leonardo de Vinci” ! An one of the reviewers picked it up saying “Who is this italian guy ?” There are so may of these little jewels in the book, I will probably read it all over and bookmark them ! 

That last sentence probably tells you everything that actually needs to be said … 

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One thought on “Book review 3: Sydney Brenner – A Biography

  1. Just imagine doing some PCR by hand… Multiple water baths, having to switch your samples continuously between them… Writing an entire PhD thesis about the sequencing of a stretch of DNA…. Great to see how fast things advance 🙂

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