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Life's Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code First Edition Edition

4.8 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 088-4787433011
ISBN-10: 0465062679
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Editorial Reviews



Named one of the best science books of 2015 by the Guardian

“The book serves as a useful primer for those interested in the brave new world of genetic intervention made possible by the rise of biotechnology. But Cobb’s book will also be of interest to professional scientists as it recounts events in one of the most transformative periods in the history of science: the rise of a molecular understanding of life…an absorbing and, in places, thrilling book. The race to crack the genetic code is a story with considerable drama and it unfolds remarkably lucidly in Cobb’s telling…On the whole Cobb tells his story beautifully and his book is a pleasure to read. Packed with fascinating detail, Life’s Greatest Secret is a major accomplishment…Life’s Greatest Secret highlights the power of the beautiful experiment in science…Big data provide important new tools to biology and medicine. But the larger lesson of Life’s Greatest Secret is one that may be worth remembering. When scientists require definitive answers, not merely suggestive patterns, they require experiments that are decisive and, if all goes well, beautiful.”
New York Review of Books

“An absorbing, meticulous account of one of the greatest scientific stories of the 20th century.”

“[T]he cracking of the code of life is a great story, of which this is an accomplished telling.”

“Readers of Mr. Cobb’s book will learn much about the history and current state of modern biology.”
Wall Street Journal

“A lucid explanation of the science and the stories of key players.”

“An authoritative but nevertheless thrilling narrative…In short, this is a first-class read.”
The Observer

“[A] masterly account… Cobb’s book is a delight. Even those who know parts of the story quite well will find fresh, intriguing vignettes.”

“Cobb covers well-plowed ground, but he does so in a manner both thoroughly engaging and truly edifying.”
Publishers Weekly

“Like Cobb’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.”
Library Journal

“[A] fine history of genetics.... [A] gripping, insightful history, often from the mouths of the participants themselves.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred)

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 works—how its DNA code is turned into bodies and behaviors—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.”
—Jerry Coyne, Professor of Ecology and Evolution, The University of Chicago, and author of Why Evolution Is True

“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!”
—Brian Cox, Professor of Physics, The University of Manchester and author of Why Does E=mc²?

“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.”
—Adam Rutherford, author of Creation: How Science Is Reinventing Life Itself

“Most people think the race to sequence the human genome culminated at the 2000 White House “Mission Accomplished” announcement. In Matthew Cobb’s 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

"Writing with flair, charisma and authority, this is Cobb’s magnum opus. But more important than that, this is humankind’s magnum opus. This is the story of a great human endeavour—a global adventure spanning decades—which unravelled how life really works. No area of science is more fundamental or more important; read about it and be filled with wonder."
—Daniel M. Davis, author of The Compatibility Gene

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 Morange’s History of Molecular Biology and the author of Generation (known as The Egg and Sperm Race, in the UK).

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; First Edition edition (July 7, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465062679
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465062676
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.5 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #6,973 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Christine on August 15, 2015
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
LGS is a fine retelling of events related to how the correspondence between DNA sequence and amino acid sequence in proteins was established - i.e., the genetic code. Previous histories of the era include "The Eighth Day of Creation", "Who Wrote the Book of Life?" and "A History of Molecular Biology" (translated from the French by Cobb). He has told the story chronologically versus the somewhat meandering "Eighth". LGS has sufficient references to guide the reader to source materials.

The level of presentation is fine for a general audience and has benefited from access to lab notebooks and the like that allow for a more lively presentation, e.g., "At 3.00 a.m. on Saturday 27 May 1961, Heinrich Matthaei began one of the most significant experiments in the history of biology." And that is not a hyperbolic statement! Cobb makes an effort to show how the ideas of information and cybernetics informed the changing mindset that is now called molecular biology.

The latter part of the book serves as an overview of what has happened since the late 60's. A story still being lived and full of ever more awe-inspiring discoveries: sequencers and genome-wide studies, epigenetic processes, and societal implications.

There's much more to the story of molecular biology since 1953 that is not exposed and is at least as interesting, such as how ATP Synthase works and why it is that we think that we know this. Similarly for ribosomal processes, splicing mechanisms and the bacterial immune system known as CRISPR.

LGS is a great place to start.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Matthew Cobb put together an outstanding chronicle of the efforts to understand how life works. The writing is clear and compelling and the deep research shines through as the developments are brought to us, not only as facts, but also the underlying thinking and social constructs that helped shape this race.

The reader receives a good understanding of DNA, RNA, amino acids, proteins, ribosomes and the mechanisms of their interaction.

Many individuals are brought to us in a straight forward manner, without judgments by today's standards. This includes (in)famous and accomplished individuals, whom you would not expect, who contributed in one way or another.

This book is informative and entertaining. It continues beyond the 'race' up to current developments and refinements.

The key words are sequence, code, information, codons and dogma, but you must read this book to find out what these terms mean.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have been reading about genetics for 60 years. I lived and read through the DNA discovery and on into epigenetics. I have read much of the early literature in my research on horse coat color inheritance.

So, why did I want to read this book? The reviews, first, said it was well-written, and I don't read for pleasure things that aren't. The reviews also promised information to fill in some gaps in my knowledge of the sweep of the story. And it is well-written, and it does a great job of telling the story, including filling in even gaps I didn't know I had.

Cobb's knowledge of science and his ability to put the player's thinking in the mindset of the times helped me understand why those who found DNA were so unable to even think in the right way to find the ***blindingly obvious*** (to those who saw the explanation once it was discovered) way to read those four codons into amino acids.

What I also appreciated, and didn't expect, was the understanding and description of human propensities that led people to give so little credit to the work of Oswald Avery for so long, and the story that most of us know at least in summary of Rosalyn Franklin being given such grudging credit so late for her part in the discovery of the double helix. These interactions are presented as clearly as the science and thoughts, and with the words and feelings of the participants but no taking of sides. Many histories of these events provide the social commentary of women in science (and many other endeavors) and the stealing of ideas, but this book is not one of them. That is o.k., just go elsewhere if you want that side of events.

There is an amazing amount of information in this book, and it may be the best I have ever read to cover such a broad sweep.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
When people think about the scientific accomplishments of the 20th century the discovery of the structure of the DNA molecule is always remembered as one of the most important. Despite the monumental importance of the structure of DNA there are a host of other scientific discoveries that were of incredible importance related to our biochemistry. In addition the evolution of our understanding of ourselves is lost in trumpeting the moments of accomplishment rather than the path that led to such discoveries and the given knowledge of the day. Life's Greatest Secret gives an account of the history of our understanding of our genetic structure and the way information is encoded at the cellular level. It provides the reader with a continuous history of how our understanding of ourselves at the cellular level evolved.

The author starts with Schrodinger's thoughts on the subject of What is Life. A century ago little was known about how genetic information is encoded. We had Mendel's results and evolutionary ideas were entrenched but the mechanism in which information was passed generation to generation was absent. The search for such a mechanism was challenged due to the magnitude of the problem and the lack of precision instruments to be able to help us understand what was occurring. Schrodinger hypothesized that the complexity of ourselves could be embedded in an aperiodic crystal. Around this time as well the subject of information theory was being developed by Claude Shannon for transmission of information in noisy channels and this subject was also being used to analyze the information structure of various candidates for transferring heredity.
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