By Chelsea Pelayo
This week I have been reading The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I recommend this book to anyone who thought the history taught in science classes was tedious and irrelevant — because admittedly the way it is often taught is tedious and irrelevant. Mukherjee does an amazing job of telling a compelling story of the race to decipher the mysterious inner workings of heredity. It turns the technical world of genetics and biology into a melodrama that emotionally invests you in its path to discovery.
Mukherjee does this by writing about the historical accounts of major players, from Mendel to Rosalind Franklin to Watson and Crick. He dives into the experiences that went into the discoveries and how that new science was used, illustrating it with letters and notes that provide insight to the neurosis or genius behind those pioneering scientists which furthered legitimate research, without ignoring the dark history of misuse and pseudoscience.
Mukherjee does all that without dumbing down the concepts. Instead, he slowly strings you along the thought process that went into conceiving, theorizing and isolating the elusive molecule that is DNA — often in beautifully poetic ways:
“Monet is but an eye,” Cezanne once said of his friend, “but, God, what an eye.”
DNA by that same logic, is but a chemical — but, God, what a chemical.
This personal history of scientists’ thought process reads like a hybrid novel-textbook, colored with drama, suspense and epiphanic realizations of how these dry-seeming discoveries impact you personally. Mukherjee makes you feel like you are discovering the gene alongside the historical protagonists.
While reading, you immediately see why Mukherjee was so deserving of becoming a New York Times bestseller. He has the talent to make a 400-page book on science interesting, interdisciplinary and uniquely human.
But he also does something about this that I have not seen with any other science writer — he ties the story of The Gene with his own story as an Indian-American immigrant. As a first generation Mexican-American, that is exactly what drew me to his book. I wondered how he would be able to make his own experience, seemingly irrelevant to the topic, relevant and integral to the story he was unfolding. This book beautifully encompasses the way prose and personal experience can combine to create an intimate understanding of a universally important topic, making for an epically essential read.
Mukherjee uses beautiful story telling to paint historical science and dogmatic tenets of science in a new light. There is so much beauty in understanding the world around us, and the path to understanding it is uniquely imperfect and human. I am of the opinion that science disciplines are suffering by omitting the humanities. This book is there to fill the gaps.
Chelsea Pelayo is a freelance writer and photojournalist from Chula Vista, CA. She studied human biology at the University of California Santa Cruz and uses her background to explore topics that intersect science and art. She is currently a producer and photographer of Headtrip Podcast, a traveling show exploring the American Southwest where she fulfills her love for traveling and road trip snacking.