The Breakfast Table

The New Yorker Then and Now

Dear Matt,

I didn’t mean that finally knowing the whole human bit string won’t be a big deal. But, as you say, we’ve had the Rosetta Stone for decades–the code book for translating the triplets of nucleic acids into the building blocks of proteins. To go from there to a deep understanding of how the richness of a life unfolds from a long, twisting row of symbols–that’s going to tax human brain power to the limits. Molecular hermeneutics, I guess you’d call it. The problem is as profound as understanding how the spider webs of neurons in our heads encode the experiences of a lifetime. So far no one has a clue. Still, your enthusiasm for the genome project is catching, and I’m starting to remember why I love this stuff.

I’d still like to know your opinion of the New Yorker piece. When I saw they were actually running something about Venter and his Celera company at this late date, my first reaction was disbelief. Richard Preston, who wrote the article, is one of the best science writers dead or alive. And this may well be the best of the Venter bios (I’ve generally avoided them). But the press has been cranking out stories about this guy since at least 1992. Maybe it’s just sour grapes on my part. I’ve had no luck breaking into this mysterious magazine with stories about such pressing issues as, say, physicists searching for extra dimensions. I keep hearing that they only want ideas that are completely new, stories nobody else has done. So why Venter? Sure, this week’s genome announcements provide a coveted “news peg,” but couldn’t they have found some new angle to plumb?

And did they really need, right in the fourth graf, the obligatory high-school primer about what DNA is? Imagine if sportswriters had to explain in every single story all the arcane terminology of baseball or football. (By the way, I haven’t the slightest idea what an “end run” is. I think it’s something from golf or ice hockey.) Preston does spin a beautiful scene in which he learns what a glob of DNA really looks and tastes (!) like. But otherwise the story was almost devoid of science. It was all business and politics. What a contrast to Horace Freeland Judson’s glorious three-part New Yorker series on the double helix that ran in the late ‘70s. This was one of the magazine’s greatest moments. Judson and his editors were unafraid to infuse the artful sketches of the players (Watson and Crick, Rosalind Franklin, etc) with fine-grained explanations of real theorizing and real experiments. Readers didn’t need any biological training to understand–just patience, concentration, and a desire to learn. Editors seem to think that today’s readers lack these qualities.

It’s funny, because Judson’s piece (later part of his book Eighth Day of Creation) also included a visceral description of encountering raw DNA for the first time. Maybe Preston was, consciously or not, invoking Judson–making a sly allusion to the differences between the old and new New Yorker, and between science writing then and now. Imagine Judson beginning a piece, as Preston does, with “Craig Venter is an asshole,” and using the verb “dis,” as in “Watson dissed Venter’s methods.” Gangsta rap comes to science writing.