The winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry narrates the race to understand the structure of the ribosome—a finding that advanced our knowledge of all life—alongside a human story of his own unlikely journey to the top of the science profession.
Some readers might take issue with how events or personalities are presented in Gene Machine. Yonath’s pioneering work is fully acknowledged, for example. Yet, as Ramakrishnan’s principal competitor, she sometimes appears in an unfavorable light. This is not an objective history of the field, but a highly personal account. As such, anyone who wants to know how modern science really works should read it. It’s all here: the ambition, jealousy and factionalism—as well as the heroic late nights, crippling anxiety and disastrous mistakes—that underlie the apparently serene and objective surface represented by the published record.
There are a few sections of the book where the technical details dominate the story, but most of the tale is told through interactions with other scientists. Throughout the book, a clear picture emerges of the human side of science ... The hopes and concerns of those engaged in this challenging and frustrating task are told with honesty and sensitivity ... There are some disappointing aspects to the book. Even though there are numerous references to a wide range of scientists, there is no index to allow the reader to locate information about any of them ... Gene Machine gives an enlightening and enjoyable picture of the human side of scientific research and stresses the importance of interdisciplinary efforts to deal with the 'big picture' issues in modern science.
Science is surely a noble calling, but it is also, Mr. Ramakrishnan reminds us, a type of professional guild, and guild members have economic and personal motives, not only scientific ones, when it comes to recognizing and rewarding ideas. For research to become established knowledge, a scientist needs to build a compelling narrative and provide an interpretation of the findings that others will accept. Mr. Ramakrishnan engagingly pursues these themes and others ... He is forthright about the drudgery of lab work and its problems ... Mr. Ramakrishnan doesn’t stint on anecdotes that show his sometimes petty behavior, not least in some of his comments about...a woman in a male-dominated profession could rightly be considered a fellow outsider but who doesn’t elicit much of his sympathy ... Mr. Ramakrishnan never stops keeping score, but it is his full embrace of the role of the antihero that makes Gene Machine so much fun to read and also serves as a reminder to us all of the beating human heart that lies at the center of every advance in science.