March 4, 2021

Walter Isaacson on CRISPR, Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race (#503)

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“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.

Please enjoy!

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, or on your favorite podcast platform.

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What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.

SCROLL BELOW FOR LINKS AND SHOW NOTES…

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

SHOW NOTES

  • 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]

PEOPLE MENTIONED

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The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 600 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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