Thursday, April 14, 2022

Review: The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

Today's read swings into the non-fiction arena and takes a look at a little known figure from history. Jennifer Doudna was one of the leading figures in understanding RNA.  Not only did she win the Nobel Prize in 2020, but she made more than a couple important contributions to the biochemistry and genetic world. So, when I had a chance to take a peek at this read and find out more about her, I decided to give it a go. This book has been released for adults, and this one is the young adult version...written for the teen audience.

Let's take a peek and see if it works!

by Walter Isaacson
with Sarah Durand
Simon & Schuster
Young Adult Non-Fiction
336 pages

APRIL 26th!!!

Walter Isaacson’s #1 New York Times bestselling history of our third scientific revolution: CRISPR, gene editing, and the quest to understand the code of life itself, is now adapted for young readers!

When Jennifer Doudna was a sixth grader in Hilo, Hawaii, she came home from school one afternoon and found a book on her bed. It was The Double Helix, James Watson’s account of how he and Francis Crick had discovered the structure of DNA, the spiral-staircase molecule that carries the genetic instruction code for all forms of life.

This book guided Jennifer Doudna to focus her studies not on DNA, but on what seemed to take a backseat in biochemistry: figuring out the structure of RNA, a closely related molecule that enables the genetic instructions coded in DNA to express themselves. Doudna became an expert in determining the shapes and structures of these RNA molecules —an expertise that led her to develop a revolutionary new technique that could edit human genes.

Today gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR are already being used to eliminate simple genetic defects that cause disorders such as Tay-Sachs and sickle cell anemia. For now, however, Jennifer and her team are being deployed against our most immediate threat—the coronavirus—and you have just been given a front row seat to that war.



I'll admit that I hadn't heard of Jennifer Doudna until picking this book up, but that's exactly what makes books like this wonderful...introducing little-known figures, who made an impact in their field.

The original version of this book was released for the adult audience. This one attempts to present the same material and make it understandable for a younger audience, ages 10 and up. Chapter by chapter, Jennifer Doudna's history, and then, contributions in DNA/RNA research are introduced. It goes into detail, not only explaining the circumstances of society and the institutions where she worked/attended, but also dives into the science, so the reader gets a good handle on what she truly did.

At over three-hundred pages, this book takes a thorough look into Doudna's accomplishments. It is written in a smooth form, which does make for easy reading. I appreciate that the facts are nicely laid-out, giving the reader a true glimpse into the science behind her discoveries in a way that anyone with a bit of science background can understand. For an adult audience or even high school level, this is an interesting read for anyone curious about the topic matter. I definitely enjoyed it.

The writing does address the younger readers in some ways. Although I'm not sure how many 5th to 8th graders are going to want to dive into a thick book about the life and science of one person. Even then, I know far, far fewer readers at this level, who will understand the science and terminology as its presented. Even many high schoolers will have problems with it. There is an attempt to make the science understandable, but without a certain amount of background in the area of cells and genetics, the descriptions are much to short and quick (usually within one sentence). There is a glossary at the end to help with more complex terms, which does help in some instances a bit.

This is a well-done read, but I'd generally recommend it to high schoolers and up. I do see science fans, who love to dive into this type of material anyway, enjoying this. Plus, it might be a good addition to homeschool material, as well.

And here he is...

Walter Isaacson, a professor of history at Tulane, has been CEO of the Aspen Institute, chair of CNN, and editor of Time. He is the author of Leonardo da VinciThe Innovators; Steve JobsEinstein: His Life and UniverseBenjamin Franklin: An American Life; and Kissinger: A Biography, and the coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. Visit him at


Heather N. Quinn said...

I admit to never having heard of Jennifer Doudna, but she deserves a book, given her accomplishments. This is the sort of book that my dad would have read aloud to us after dinner when we were tweens. We learned about a lot of interesting persons that way.

Tonja Drecker said...

What a treat that was for your dad to do that!