Having read The Genome War, I had preordered Venter's own story. I was not disappointed. The Publisher's Weekly review sniffs that it is "clumsily written." I would attribute that opinion to one of two possibilities. Either the reviewer never got beyond the early chapters about his childhood, which are marred by cliche and some amateurish prose, or the reviewer does not know enough biology to understand the rest. Once past the early biography, the rest of the book is riveting. I would warn those considering it that a reasonable knowledge of biology and genetics is almost a requirement to enjoy the story. I teach medical students and have studied molecular biology (unknown when I was a medical student) and it taxed my knowledge to the limit to understand his accomplishments. Still, the book reminds me a bit of "Science Fictions," the account of the discovery of the AIDS virus, which pulled no punches in naming villains and fakers. Venter is settling a few scores but, having read the other book, I am inclined to accept his version of the story. Biology research is not beanbag, to paraphase an old aphorism, especially when the stakes are high. There are titanic egos in this story, not just that of the author. If you like biology and genetics and want to read about the biggest big game hunt in biological science history, this is a good place to start.
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.
on May 3, 2008
This is a memoir by the scientist whose team was the first to map the human genome - and handily beat the federal government at the task with less funding and time. Unfortunately, the latter half of the book is less about science than the politics and business around it. Not only do scientists at Venter's level have to cozy up to venture capitalists, Congresspersons, and Presidents (and get courted and used by them in turn), but there's a lot of self-promotion and jockeying for position between and among colleagues.
Venter doesn't sound particularly bitter about petty, two-faced, and undermining peers (there are plenty) and their apparently dishonorable behavior, but he clearly gets back his own with this book. Thus, the greatest scientific achievement of Venter's life reads less compellingly than the more quotidian aspects of his earlier life and career: playing chicken with trains as a kid, racing jets with a bicycle as they lifted off from San Francisco Airport, and the lessons of the "University of Death" that was Vietnam, where Venter served as a medic at Da Nang navy hospital.
Venter's descriptions of the science he pursues assume a fair amount of knowledge on the part of the reader, and may be tough for the lay reader to follow, but are always thankfully short. Sailors may enjoy the accounts of his escapes to the ocean, handily winning a trans-Atlantic race and fighting a storm in the Bermuda Triangle. One of the stronger features of the book are boxes set off from the narrative that describe various details of Venter's own genetic code in relation to the latest findings about inheritance, disease, and how genes express themselves in our bodies and lives.
Others discuss possible genetic links to long life, cancerous tumors, blindness, depression, eye color, Alzheimers, diabetes, thrill seeking, irregular heartbeat, fatness, cardiac vulnerability to caffeine, asthma, addictions, and circadian rhythms. Even if such knowledge doesn't lead to cures, identifying markers in one's genes could certainly guide preventive nutrition and medical practices.
The greatest lesson of Venter's memoir involves the complex dance between chance and will. He escaped death repeatedly and seized opportunities as often through forces beyond his control as by choice. For him, the old nature vs. nurture debate is so beside the point it is hardly worth acknowledging: "An organism's environment is ultimately as unique as its genetic code."
on January 17, 2008
Knowing Craig and having had worked at Celera, I was eager to learn more of the details of Craig's early career which I knew only in general strokes. However, also knowing Craig, I was also inclined to take his portrayal with a grain of salt. In this spirit, I would strongly recommend this book as a gripping tale of remarkable success, intrigue, and adventure, as told through the eyes of one of the greatest egomaniacs ever.
The book does wander a bit through Craig's earliest years and the strongest material coincides with the formation of TIGR, Celera, and the JCVI. I can vouch for many of the stories and perspectives from the Celera years, having heard, directly or indirectly, of the events at the time. The interludes about Craig's genome are fascinating, and the science is presented with enough explanation and metaphor that it should be easy to grasp for the non-expert.
However, as much as Craig "sets the record straight", or grinds axes depending on your perspective, his ego tinges the entire book and regrettably diminishes its credibility. It's simply hard to believe a man, who in his own account, was always right, never showed a shred of self-doubt, and never made a mistake beyond trusting the incompetents and villains surrounding him.
Craig also spends his time railing against commercial science and business people, claiming that he never had any aspirations to make money---although he made plenty---and feuded constantly with those that did. Although this seems superficially noble, it does make we wonder at his motives to request tens and hundreds of millions of dollars from venture capitalists if he truly never intended to repay those investments. In his eagerness to please the scientific establishment with his piety, he seems never to consider the opposing viewpoint of his business "partners" nearly as seriously as he delves into the opposing scientists.
All in all, this is an entertaining book for those interested in genomics and/or the politics of big science. Its flaws arise mainly in Craig's tiresome, endless self-congratulations, which in my opinion rise to the level where they undermine the credibility of the story.
on February 21, 2008
Someone suggested skipping the early chapters in which Venter describes his childhood. That would be a mistake. In contrast to the current day in which parents rigidly structure the free time and play activites of their children, Venter was told in his 1950s childhood to "Go play!". That, plus his high IQ, were a formula for either failure or success on a large scale. Venter succeeded in a grand way that has transformed biology. And he did it in spite of obstacles placed in his way from unexpected, and disappointing, quarters. What, for example, should one make of James Watson and Francis Collins, who could have improved their own images immeasurable by acting for the best of the science, rather than for what was best for themselves? "What's in it for me?" seems to be a common whine heard from many of those working for Venter as well as against him. What he accomplished was a marvelous achievement, made even larger by the fact that he had so much opposition, personal, political, scientific. While this may not be high literature, it is a scientific adventure story of a high order. Read it, and be sure that your children have freedom to play and be creative.
on January 3, 2008
Venter is known as a controversial figure in UK where I live. He became known for trying to make a fortune out of patenting genes. So I wanted to read this book to see just what Venter had to say. It was truly a revelation. The first fifty pages had enough excitement curiosity and adventure for a complete life story. But this is the story of a high school dropout and surfer traumatised by Vietnam war experience becoming a world leading scientist. In fact all his post-war effort has been put into furthering science and medicine to try to understand and enhance life in all forms. The entrepreneurial effort was purely to further scientific discovery rather than a money grubbing exercise widely portrayed. The vindictiveness and double dealing of business and scientific colleagues were but obstacles to overcome in reaching successive goals. After reading the book and seeing his continuing program one is inspired. Controversial is a total misnomer. The UK scientific community and the even BBC do not come out well. It should be read by all aspiring scientists to prepare them for the pitfalls of being a pioneer thinking outside the box. It is not an exaggeration to compare him to Einstein. Apart from that it is a ripping good story with many fascinating scientific facts relating Venter's genome to his life story.
on January 17, 2012
I started reading this autobiography alongside The Genome War and found it to be a great complement. Venter had a whole career before starting on the human genome- his book is more than half over before he relates an incident brought up 15% of the way through Shreeve's.
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.
on November 10, 2009
I was relaxing on my boat after a day of sailing, enjoying a beer, while I watched this bald guy park his big power boat in the marina slip next to mine. He looked like the new guy in the marina, so I called out "looks like moving day!" He said it was, so I walked over and introduced myself. He told me his name was Craig, and as I did a double-take, I asked him if he was Craig Ventner. He politely corrected me and said "Venter." Wow! I told him how my wife and I saw the Discovery show "Decoding the Oceans", and asked him where Sorcerer II was, and he told me she was on a new expedition. There I was having a neighborly conversation with my new neighbor - a real live superstar! (I'm an engineer, sort of a nerd, so to me Craig is a superstar). I'm also a CEO and I enjoy reading about successful people. Armand Hammer, Chuck Yeager, Lee whatshisname, The Donald's "Art of the Deal", so I was intrigued when Craig suggested that I read his book "Decoding Life" to learn more about genomics. So, I did. Just finished it in fact. Couldn't put it down. Anyway, I left Craig to finish cleaning up his boat and went to pick up the pizza that I had ordered. On my way back, as I walked through the marina parking lot, what do I see?...a beautiful black Tesla roadster, and I immediately know who owns it. Back on the dock, as I walked past Craig, where he is sorting his dock lines, I ask "hey Craig, is that your Tesla up there in the parking lot?" Of course it's his. I knew it. He loves it, all electric hotrod, so fast it scares him, he says. So, naturally I offer to share my pizza with him, since its around dinner time now. Craig smiles and says the offer is tempting, but his wife is waiting at home for him, and we part. So, back on my boat, I'm so excited, I call my wife to tell her I just met Craig Venter, no Venter, not Ventner. As I'm talking to my wife I hear a knock on my boat, and guess who hands me a bottle of wine? Thanks Craig, I say, as I tell my wife Craig Venter just came by and offered me a bottle of wine he had left in the cooler on his boat.
Craig is one of us. He belongs to us. He is a National Treasure. Our brother that we share 99.5% of our DNA with, and he is of the most gifted human beings of our time. I'm thrilled and honored to have met him because its not every day you meet a guy like that with a mind so creative and flexible to be able to solve one of mankind's most complex puzzles, and yet be so thoughtful and warm a human being. Thanks Craig, I raise my glass and toast you, may your CETP gene help you live long and prosper!
on April 2, 2015
This is a great man. He is also crazy; he almost drowned his friends rather than turn his yacht around in the face of a violent storm/hurricane.
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.
on June 11, 2014
Venter came from a middle class family. School did not inspire him. The draft caused him to enlist in the Navy where a routine test revealed extraordinary intelligence. He survived in Vietnam as a medic but the horrors he saw made him determined to make good use of his life. He quickly became a distinguished scientist and then a visionary leader in science.
Expensive research is financed by government and by industry. Government funds are handed out by peer review panels, which for large projects may contain people who are competing for some of the money for their own projects. Industry wants to keep discoveries from the competition and it wants profits, preferably soon. in describing his efforts to get his research funded, Venter says much that is very illuminating, but disconcerting too, about the behavior of a number of people of great distinction. Throghout, he gives many details of his own thinking and feelings and of his private activities. Vision like Venter's and his ability to make it real are very rare, and few who have it write and publish a frank autobiography.
The print editions have many interesting photographs, although even the recent ones are printed in grayscale. The photos are missing from the Kindle edition.
on March 15, 2008
First and foremost, I am not a "biology" person. The highest of Biology courses I took were undergraduate. But I have always been fascinated by the topic of genetics. Venter's life story is riveting. From the get go, he makes no apology for deciding to write his own biography and so soon, too. From this, I gathered that he was a bit of an egomaniac but face facts, he did and has accomplished something truly visionary and if one likes to toot his own horn, I say he has earned it.
Once, the reader can wrap his/her mind around this fact, you can truly focus on the science and the man. Yes, he doesn't seem to put himself in the side as being the only person that was never in it for money but in the same breathe, he also succinctly tells you that regardless, he was not going to let others take advantage of him.
His early childhood in San Francisco, being borderline bad, and going to Vietnam and it having such a deep impact on him is humbling. He decided where and how far he wanted to go and he accomplished it all.
His tale is a little one sided in bits and I guess no one ever really wants to cast themselves in a poor light but I feel that if he had accepted fault for something, well anything, the book would be all so much more powerful and victorious.
He also keeps his personal life out of the story, barely mentioning his first wife, the second one or the fact that at some point he was on to number 3 (well almost).
The decoding and sequencing of the human genome is one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the modern world and simply, because it opens up new infinite possibilities in treating/preventing disease.
There is one additional thing to be expected though, he does a gallant job of trying to keep the biology babble to a minimum but to explain what and how he got to where he is, he did have to put in some stuff. So a couple of pages might have you doing a quick scan and moving o:)