“The molecule is going to become the new microchip.”— Walter Isaacson
Walter Isaacson (@WalterIsaacson) is a professor of history at Tulane, has been CEO of the Aspen Institute, chair of CNN, and editor of Time. He is the author of Leonardo da Vinci; The Innovators; Steve Jobs; Einstein: His Life and Universe; Benjamin Franklin: An American Life; and Kissinger: A Biography. He is co-author of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made.
His new book is The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race.
You can find our first conversation from 2017 at tim.blog/walter.
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Want to hear Walter’s first time on this podcast? Listen to our conversation in which we learn life lessons and tactics from Steve Jobs, Ben Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, and more.
SELECTED LINKS FROM THE EPISODE
- Connect with Walter Isaacson:
Tulane University | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube
- The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson
- Walter Isaacson’s Lectures for The Digital Revolution: From Ada to Zuckerberg | Tulane University, YouTube
- Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
- The Innovators by Walter Isaacson
- Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
- Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson
- Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson
- Kissinger: A Biography by Walter Isaacson
- The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made by Walter Isaacson
- The Louis Armstrong House Museum | Corona, Queens
- Ada Lovelace’s Letters and Work on Display at Oxford Library | BBC News
- Writing the History of the Digital Revolution | School of Liberal Arts, Tulane University
- Walter Isaacson on Diversity, the Tug of Home, and Recovering from Katrina | Via Nola Vie
- What is Jazz? | National Museum of American History
- CRISPR: A Game-Changing Genetic Engineering Technique | Science in the News
- After the Nobel, What Next for CRISPR Gene-Editing Therapies? | The Guardian
- Contrasting Prometheus with Adam & Eve | r/Nietzsche, Reddit
- The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA by James D. Watson
- Double Helix by James Watson (First Edition) | AbeBooks
- The Dark Side of CRISPR | Scientific American
- The Next Trick for CRISPR Is Gene-Editing Pain Away | MIT Technology Review
- Should the Rich Be Allowed to Buy the Best Genes? | Air Mail
- Double Muscling in Cattle: Genes, Husbandry, Carcasses, and Meat | Animals
- Belgian Blue | Beef2Live
- What is Bully Whippet Syndrome? | DDC Pets & Vets
- A Year In, 1st Patient to Get Gene Editing for Sickle Cell Disease Is Thriving | Morning Edition, NPR
- Meet the Human Guinea Pig Who Hacked His Own DNA | CBC Radio
- A Spur to the Biotech Century Ahead | WSJ
- A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution | Aspen Ideas
- What Caused the US’ Anti-Science Trend? | Harvard Gazette
- Learn to Code for Free | Codecademy
- The Human Genome Project | NIH
- Genetics 101 | CDC
- 100 Greatest Living Geniuses | The Daily Telegraph
- AI Protein-Folding Algorithms Solve Structures Faster than Ever | Nature
- P=MD | Merck Manuals
- The Story of Sleepy Grass | Hawaii Reporter
- Mona Lisa | Louvre Museum, Paris
- Why is the Sky Blue? | Scientific American
- Steve Jobs Took This (Surprising) Class in College, and It Helped Inspire One of Apple’s Most Creative Features | Inc.
- The Significance of Leonardo da Vinci’s Famous “Vitruvian Man” Drawing | My Modern Met
- The Scientific Method | Khan Academy
- Nobel Prize Winner: Give Scientists Time to Make ‘Curiosity-Driven’ Discoveries | Discover Magazine
- Curiosity-Driven Knowledge Is a Vital Form of Infrastructure | Scientific American
- Lovelace: The Programmer Who Spooked Alan Turing | Mind Matters
- The Turing Test | Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Benjamin Franklin and Electricity | Revolutionary War and Beyond
- What Franklin Thought of the Constitution | Pieces of History
- The 5 Whys | Lean Enterprise Institute
- Lies, Damn Lies, and CRISPR: The Legal Battle Escalates | Duke SciPol
- CRISPR Rivals Put Patents Aside to Help in Fight Against COVID-19 | Stat
- Robert Noyce and the Integrated Circuit | Cofounderstown
- The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History by John Barry
- Mask Resistance During a Pandemic Isn’t New — in 1918 Many Americans Were ‘Slackers’ | Discover Magazine
- RNA Vaccines: A Novel Technology to Prevent and Treat Disease | Science in the News
- Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes
- Putin Could Decide for the World on CRISPR Babies | MIT Technology Review
- A Year After the First CRISPR Babies, Stricter Regulations Are Now in Place | The Conversation
- Will GMOs Hurt My Body? The Public’s Concerns and How Scientists Have Addressed Them | Science in the News
- What Can the Trolley Problem Teach Self-Driving Car Engineers? | Wired
- Despite a keen interest in his life and times, why did Walter decide against writing a biography of jazz legend Louis Armstrong? What other projects has he similarly set aside? [07:23]
- Why did Walter add the job of college professor to what most mere mortals would consider an already overflowing schedule? [09:53]
- What makes home home? [11:42]
- What is CRISPR — who developed it, how has it been used so far, and what is its potential? [15:14]
- How did The Double Helix by James Watson influence a curious young Walter, and why did he choose Jennifer Doudna to be the protagonist of his latest book? [18:52]
- With fallible human motivations driving the use of this technology and the unintended consequences that are bound to result, What might a CRISPR-edited world look like — for better or worse? [22:09]
- How is CRISPR technology applied to adults, and what implications does this have, for instance, for competitive athletics and anti-doping efforts? [27:25]
- Walter riffs on innovation revolutions surrounding the three fundamental kernels of our existence: the atom, the bit, and the gene, and how he hopes The Code Breaker might galvanize future generations of scientists and scientific thinkers in the same way he and Jennifer Doudna were inspired by The Double Helix. [29:42]
- What does the education look like for someone who wants to better understand the molecule as the new microchip? [35:19]
- In a field with no shortage of legitimate geniuses, what makes Jennifer Doudna special? How was she able to work out a puzzle that had, until that point, eluded the efforts of every other scientist who tried? Was it just a matter of asking better questions? [39:47]
- As a biographer of many fascinating minds, with whom does Walter think Jennifer Doudna most closely compares? [46:53]
- How 19th-century computer pioneer Ada Lovelace and 20th-century computer scientist Alan Turing came to different conclusions about questions we may not even be able to answer in the 21st century. [48:57]
- Does Walter believe there’s a necessary seeking of wonder or awe — a motivation — behind the breed of curiosity shared by Lovelace, Doudna, and Franklin? [52:32]
- When science makes the leap from curiosity-driven discovery to practical application, a race to get credit and funding for related discoveries generally follows. What did this competition look like for Jennifer Doudna and partner Emmanuelle Charpentier when they realized that CRISPR could ignite a scientific revolution, and against whom did they compete? What are the pros and cons of such competition, and what prizes really motivate the participants? [55:12]
- What insights, counterintuitive wisdom, and memorable points about pandemic life past and present have been made clear to Walter by the work of fellow author (and, coincidentally, neighbor!) John Barry, who wrote The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History? [1:02:59]
- Like Albert Hoffman, Robert Oppenheimer, and Victor Frankenstein, scientists sometimes have to face the misapplications of (and the monsters created by) their discoveries. After a nightmare about how Hitler might have abused CRISPR technology, how has Jennifer Doudna been reckoning with the moral implications of her own work? [1:05:20]
- Is it possible to create globally enforceable guard rails for how CRISPR technology should be used, or is it too late now that Pandora’s box has been opened? What makes its regulation more tricky than other potentially destructive technologies, like nuclear weapons? [1:08:11]
- Is there any aspect of The Code Breaker that Walter worries some people might misinterpret or miss entirely? [1:10:35]
- Why it might finally be philosophy’s time to shine as a practical skill set, and responsibly asking “why not?” is just as important as asking “why?” [1:12:59]
- Parting thoughts. [1:17:25]
- Leonardo da Vinci
- Steve Jobs
- Albert Einstein
- Benjamin Franklin
- Henry Kissinger
- Jennifer Doudna
- Louis Armstrong
- Ada Lovelace
- Lord Byron
- Emmanuelle Charpentier
- Adam and Eve
- James Watson
- Francis Crick
- Rosalind Franklin
- Linus Pauling
- Adolf Hitler
- Vladimir Putin
- Victoria Gray
- Jason Zayner
- Mark McGwire
- Jose Canseco
- Tim Berners-Lee
- Albert Hofmann
- Mona Lisa
- Alan Turing
- Feng Zhang
- Bob Noyce
- John Barry
- Edward Jenner
- Thomas Hobbes
- Frankenstein’s Monster
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3 Replies to “Walter Isaacson on CRISPR, Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race (#503)”
Hey Tim, I have a special skill. You cannot beat me in an argument lol. So far I use it for nothing much except thinking, or arguing. The former is not tangible, as far as I know … I think. The latter is why I’m single lol. I’ve cycled through spouses forever, but this damn virus shook me out of it lol. No literally. And technically, that would likely be correct too. I feel I should teach you this arguing thing, in return for your bit in the bid to free lsd. Thx for trying to free lsd. It deserves it.
Re crispr…if you have a lawn then a bad red blade can be cut out with a pair of scissors (ie sickle cell) but for better muscles, brains, etc you need a lawn mower which will have unintended consequences.
Mark Elliott MD
Hi Tim, Thanks for your comments on the importance of basic science. As a basic scientist myself I understand the importance of fundamental discoveries, but I think this is not a concept that is well appreciated by the general audience. Great podcast, thanks for all you do.