- Audible Audio Edition
- Listening Length: 16 hours and 54 minutes
- Program Type: Audiobook
- Version: Unabridged
- Publisher: Tantor Audio
- Audible.com Release Date: October 24, 2007
- Language: English
- ASIN: B000XTK7G0
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank:
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A Life Decoded: My Genome - My Life Audiobook – Unabridged
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The best part of the story begins as he returns from Vietnam, a near failure in high school, now stimulated by his experiences as a corpsman to study and go to medical school. He has married a New Zealand girl he met on R&R in Australia. They both go to UCSD once they have mastered junior college. Here he becomes interested in biochemistry, then cell biology. He is the beneficiary of the interest of a noted cell biologist who likes his story and encourages him to do research. Eventually, this leads to a PhD only seven years after his return from the war. He goes on to a medical school faculty position, gradually building his research credentials until he is invited to join the NIH.
He tells the story of his research into the nature of the adrenaline receptor, the link that allows the hormone to stimulate the heart to beat faster and more powerfully. From there, he begins to study the genetics of the receptor. From there, he climbs the path to world fame and meets some nasty surprises in fellow scientists whose personal ambition cancels their devotion to science. I highly recommend this book to those with some background in biology and genetics. He tries to simplify for a broader audience but the subject is still complex. I read the book in two days, actually taking longer than I might with another non-fiction book because it requires concentration and some rereading to understand the details. The science, not the author, is the hero here and it takes some time to understand it all.
The government was set to decode the genome in 20 years giving out billions to university professors using manual techniques. Venter raised $200 million, bought a bunch of machines, and worked them 24/7 for 2 years and got the job done. They still made him share the glory with the National Institute of Health and its 20 year project.
He sailed around the world collecting water samples and discovered more new life forms than had been found previously. His story about serving in the Army in Vietnam is priceless. He got his start in biology working as a medic in vietnam. after that he went to school.
Great insights into genetics. He and his new lab are working to develop synthetic life. He can already build DNA starting with bases A, T, U, G.
Most of this book is about his work, the seemingly unavoidable politics of navigating schemes that opposed his work, and then a little about sailing. Venter had the vision and confidence to lead teams of people towards large goals that took years to achieve. Due to his biochemist training, he was attentive to detail and got unprecedented results partly due to painstakingly verifying manufacturer's claims. While his ability to execute on a long term plan and attend to detail seemed surprising for someone who was a bad high school student, throughout his life he consistently displayed a highly competitive, risk seeking nature, which allowed him to be the game changer in his field. A top performer, he seems to fixate on and draw motivation from opposition and criticims. Aside from Venter's boldness and drive, the only personality that comes out is that of a cartoonishly devious and somewhat stupid Watson.
The concepts are easy to understand but Venter emphasizes that biological ideas are cheap- the devil's in the details, a perhaps obvious statement that helped to drive me away from biology ages ago because it's so complex, just one thing after another. Despite innovating towards using sophisticated computing and robotic technology, something like 10-90% of the machines would be broken on any given day, and Venter describes endless other implementational headaches to get the necessary data.
This inspirational account of doggedly pursuing one's vision also reveals a depressing aspect of the current scientific world where mediocrity is incentivized and innovation difficult without significant ego. Modern scientists seem to have to choose between acclaim (ultimately in the form of the Nobel prize) and money (by disappearing into industry and branded as opposed to sharing work, regardless of whether they actually share data or not). This obsession with the Nobel prize makes me consider the motivations of the great scientists of yore like Newton, who obviously never received these prizes, and reveals that humans are naturally competitive- if we can't compete over money then we compete over recognition. The myth of the tenured genius like Mendel bumbling about with experiments so far ahead of their time as to have no immediate use is not a beneficial model when generally applied. Balancing the slow, beurocratic, often ineffective, resource draining motions of modern academia with the perhaps shortsighted, globally suboptimal greed of industry illustrates a question encountered in many spheres.