Monday, June 26, 2006

Review: The Genome War

One of the most difficult (read: boring, but I hate calling it that) books on tape I've ever listened to was the story of how Watson and Crick discovered DNA. On one hand it's a very cool concept - they essentially reasoned out the structure using logic and creativity. On the other hand, it was a very slow process, and just wasn't written in a way I could get excited about.

So, when I saw The Genome War by James Shreeve I had flashabacks to this incident and was a bit hesistant. But I decided to have an open mind, and rented the book.

And boy am I glad I did.

This was hardly a rambling story about the slow pace of science. Instead it was an exciting story of how two completely different organizations took on the biggest computational task of our time. Both a publicly funded project, and a private company engaded in a race to sequence and map the human genome.

The story was interesting from both a science and business perspective. Next time you think your company has sold vaporware, imagine being on the team of a company that took millions of dollars from customers to attempt something which has never been done before, and which a large part of the scientific community thinks can't be done. Now that's pressure.

Perhaps what struck me most was that in many ways the mapping of the human genome is not really a biology problem - it's a computer problem. Sure, figuring out how to sequence DNA, or interpreting what a sequence means is clearly all about biology. But the act of stringing together millions of base pairs in the right order is really a complex programming jigzaw puzzle. Clearly the heros of this book, in many ways, are the computer geeks that took on this incredible challange.

One section of the book that I really connected with was when the author described how the algorithm used to build the sequence wasn't working, and the time to get the problem fixed was running out. Like all tricky bugs, the programmers are left wondering it is a tiny glitch, or is the whole approach wrong. And also like most tricky bugs, it all came down to a trivial one line error. I'd love to know what that error was.

I give this book a 9.6/10 because it is well written, has wonderful characters and kept me on the edge of my seat. Who knew scientific research could be so interesting?


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