Synopses & Reviews
Scientists and laypeople alike now know that our genomes contain information that can help us to interpret our evolutionary past. Just a half century ago, this idea was revolutionary. In April 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick published in Nature their groundbreaking work revealing the double helix structure of DNA. While this discovery received wide attention from both mainstream media and the academic community, it was just one part of the bigger story in this history of molecular biology. By the mid-1950s, the scientific community confirmed that genes were indeed comprised of DNA; they just needed to crack the genetic code—and the race was on. Lifes Greatest Secret is the full and rich history of this challenge and the characters—many of whom were not biologists—whose work contributed to this grand scientific endeavor: mathematician and father of cybernetics Norbert Wiener, physicist Erwin Schrödinger, information theorist Claude Shannon, and biologists Jacques Monod and Marshall Nirenberg.
In Lifes Greatest Secret, science historian and zoologist Matthew Cobb shows that the race to crack the genetic code was mostly a matter of craft—individuals or small groups struggling with ideas and concepts as much as they were with facts, trying to find the right experiment to answer the right questions, even if they didnt know what the questions were, and finding that, even when the most definitive answer served mostly to reveal more ignorance, whether in 1953, with Watson and Crick, or in 1961, when Nirenberg and Matthaei showed how DNA codes for specific amino acids, and again and again thereafter, or in 2000, with the first publication of a human genome. Each discovery was a leap forward in our understanding of the natural world and our place within in, akin to the discoveries of Galileo and Einstein in the realm of physics, or the publication of Darwins On the Origin of Species. And each served to show how much bigger the problem was that anyone had previously imagined, a trend that continues, as Cobb shows, even today, whether we are discussing gene regulation, epigenetics, or GMOs.
Lifes Greatest Secret is a story of ideas and of experimentation, of ingenuity, insight, and dead-ends, in the hunt to make the greatest discovery of twentieth century biology. Ultimately, though, this is a story of humans exploring what it is that makes us human.
ADVANCE PRAISE FOR LIFE'S GREATEST SECRET
Life's Greatest Secret is the logical sequel to Jim Watson's The Double Helix. While Watson and Crick deserve their plaudits for discovering the structure of DNA, that was only part of the story. Beginning to understand how that helix workshow its DNA code is turned into bodies and behaviorstook another 15 years of amazing work by an army of dedicated men and women. These are the unknown heroes of modern genetics, and their tale is the subject of Cobb's fascinating book. Every now and again I had to stop reading because the amazement overload was too great.”
Jerry Coyne, Professor of Ecology and Evolution, The University of Chicago, and author of Why Evolution Is True
Most people think the race to sequence the human genome culminated at the 2000 White House Mission Accomplished” announcement. In Matthew Cobbs Life's Greatest Secret, we learn that it was just one chapter of a far more interesting and continuing story.”
Eric Topol, Professor of Genomics and Director, Scripps Translational Science Institute and author of The Patient Will See You Now
PRAISE FOR LIFE'S GREATEST SECRET:
and#147;[T]he cracking of the code of life is a great story, of which this is an accomplished telling.and#8221;
and#147;Readers of Mr. Cobband#8217;s book will learn much about the history and current state of modern biology.and#8221;
and#151;Wall Street Journal
and#147;A lucid explanation of the science and the stories of key players.and#8221;
and#147;An authoritative but nevertheless thrilling narrativeand#133;In short, this is a first-class read.and#8221;
and#147;[A] masterly accountand#133; Cobband#8217;s book is a delight. Even those who know parts of the story quite well will find fresh, intriguing vignettes.and#8221;
and#147;Cobb covers well-plowed ground, but he does so in a manner both thoroughly engaging and truly edifying.and#8221;
and#147;Like Cobband#8217;s other titles, this scholarly work reflects extensive research and draws upon primary documents. Upper-level students and researchers in biology or the history of science are best equipped to appreciate this detailed book.and#8221;
and#147;[A] fine history of genetics.... [A] gripping, insightful history, often from the mouths of the participants themselves.and#8221;
and#151;Kirkus Reviews (starred)
and#147;Life's Greatest Secret is the logical sequel to Jim Watson's The Double Helix. While Watson and Crick deserve their plaudits for discovering the structure of DNA, that was only part of the story. Beginning to understand how that helix worksand#151;how its DNA code is turned into bodies and behaviorsand#151;took another 15 years of amazing work by an army of dedicated men and women. These are the unknown heroes of modern genetics, and their tale is the subject of Cobb's fascinating book. Every now and again I had to stop reading because the amazement overload was too great.and#8221;
and#151;Jerry Coyne, Professor of Ecology and Evolution, The University of Chicago, and author of Why Evolution Is True
and#147;Matthew Cobb is a respected scientist and historian, and he has combined both disciplines to spectacular effect in this wonderful book. A compelling, authoritative, and insightful account of how life works at the deepest level. Bloody brilliant!and#8221;
and#151;Brian Cox, Professor of Physics, The University of Manchester and author of Why Does E=mcand#178;?
and#147;The third of the grand unifying theories of biology was completed in the 20th Century, following Darwin's evolution by natural selection, and Cell Theory a century earlier. DNA, the double helix, and the universality of the genetic code radically transformed our understanding of life: no area in biology has been untouched by this revolution, from cancer to human origins to genetic engineering, and now, to the future of data storage. Cobb, a scientist and thorough historian, is a master storyteller, and recounts the thrilling science, politics, egos of this grand scientific revolution. Essential, definitive reading.and#8221;
and#151;Adam Rutherford, author of Creation: How Science Is Reinventing Life Itself
and#147;Most people think the race to sequence the human genome culminated at the 2000 White House and#147;Mission Accomplishedand#8221; announcement. In Matthew Cobband#8217;s Life's Greatest Secret, we learn that it was just one chapter of a far more interesting and continuing story.and#8221;
and#151;Eric Topol, Professor of Genomics and Director, Scripps Translational Science Institute and author of The Patient Will See You Now
"Writing with flair, charisma and authority, this is Cobband#8217;s magnum opus. But more important than that, this is humankindand#8217;s magnum opus. This is the story of a great human endeavourand#151;a global adventure spanning decadesand#151;which unravelled how life really works. No area of science is more fundamental or more important; read about it and be filled with wonder."
and#151;Daniel M. Davis, author of The Compatibility Gene
Everyone has heard of the story of DNA as the story of Watson and Crick and Rosalind Franklin, but knowing the structure of DNA was only a part of a greater struggle to understand lifeand#8217;s secrets. Lifeand#8217;s Greatest Secret is the story of the discovery and cracking of the genetic code, the thing that ultimately enables a spiraling molecule to give rise to the life that exists all around us. This great scientific breakthrough has had farreaching consequences for how we understand ourselves and our place in the natural world, and for how we might take control of our (and lifeand#8217;s) future.
Lifeand#8217;s Greatest Secret mixes remarkable insights, theoretical dead-ends, and ingenious experiments with the swift pace of a thriller. From New York to Paris, Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Cambridge, England, and London to Moscow, the greatest discovery of twentieth-century biology was truly a global feat. Biologist and historian of science Matthew Cobb gives the full and rich account of the cooperation and competition between the eccentric charactersand#151;mathematicians, physicists, information theorists, and biologistsand#151;who contributed to this revolutionary new science. And, while every new discovery was a leap forward for science, Cobb shows how every new answer inevitably led to new questions that were at least as difficult to answer: just ask anyone who had hoped that the successful completion of the Human Genome Project was going to truly yield the book of life, or that a better understanding of epigenetics or and#147;junk DNAand#8221; was going to be the final piece of the puzzle. But the setbacks and unexpected discoveries are what make the science exciting, and it is Matthew Cobband#8217;s telling that makes them worth reading. This is a riveting story of humans exploring what it is that makes us human and how the world works, and it is essential reading for anyone whoand#8217;d like to explore those questions for themselves.
About the Author
Matthew Cobb is a professor of zoology at the University of Manchester, where he works on insects and on the history of science. He earned his BA in Psychology at the University of Sheffield, as well as his PhD there, in Psychology and Genetics. He is the translator of Michel Morangeand#8217;s History of Molecular Biology and the author of Generation (known as The Egg and Sperm Race, in the UK).
Table of Contents
1. Genes before DNA
2. Information is everywhere
3. The transformation of genes
4. A slow revolution
5. The age of control
6. The double helix
7. Genetic information
8. The central dogma
9. Enzyme cybernetics
10. Enter the outsiders
11. The race
12. Surprises and sequences
13. The central dogma revisited
14. Brave new world
15. Origins and meanings