The Breakfast Table

Blueprint or Alphabet Soup?

Dear Matt,

It’s good to hear from you. I think the last (and only) time we met in physical space was in London several years ago when we were both on the short list for the Rhone Poulenc Science Book Prize. I was amazed at how seriously the British public seemed to take our obscure craft–a black-tie dinner, news coverage all over town, even a photo spread in the Sunday Mail. But what really got me was that the London betting parlors were taking wagers on who would win! I felt like a sports star. (I was considered a long shot, with the smart money on Richard Dawkins or Dava Sobel.) Nothing remotely like this happens in the States. Tim Ferris once complained to me that when you tell people you’re a science writer, they think you write software manuals for Microsoft or IBM. On the other hand, it sounds as though science education is just as boring there as here–science as received wisdom instead of a mystery story that never ends.

I’ll have to admit that I’ve been having trouble getting myself worked up about the Human Genome Project–this impending catalog of uninterpreted facts. It’s almost as though an alien civilization found the digital encoding for a Schubert string quartet and had no idea how to decipher the patterns of 1s and 0s. Stripped of its context (including a properly programmed CD player), the music would look like a big random number (especially if the coding was really compressed.)

Imagine taking the contents of the Library of Congress (or, OK, the British Library)–every book, picture, and sound recording, and turning it into one horrendously long number. Then put a decimal in front of it (.093284828998235473985291010297982 …), and suddenly you can encode all the world’s knowledge as a single point on a line. (I think I got this from Richard Powers’ novel The Goldbug Variations.) You could represent this magical number–the wisdom of the ages–as a notch on a stick and leave it for some future archeologists to puzzle over. But without a rulebook to decode the mess, they would find this information worthless, if they even recognized it as information at all. With the genome, we’re in a better position than that, I hope. But as you say, the work is just beginning, and I’m inspired by your image of the alphabet soup of G’s, C’s, A’s, and T’s as a new universe to explore. (For me the work will begin by picking up Genome, which is making quite a splash over here.)

Speaking of the New Yorker profile of Craig Venter (the cowboy scientist determined to corner the market on deciphering the genome), I’d be curious to know what you thought of it.