Gene Machine is not really about the secrets of the ribosome. It’s rather more an autobiography, mostly but not entirely focusing on Ramakrishnan’s path to solving the structure of the ribosome. Now, as any half-baked biologist knows, the structure of a biological molecule is absolutely integral to its function… a protein’s chemical makeup determines how it will fold, and how it will fold determines whether it has the right pocket for something to bind to, or the right side chain to bind with something else. So I don’t mean to belittle the achievement of finally resolving the structure of the ribosome, but it doesn’t actually reveal that much yet. There is, on this showing, a lot more work to be done to really understand ribosomes. It will be made possible by the work of Ramakrishnan, there’s no denying that.
Still, I’m more interested in that than in the process of taking the ribosome’s photograph, and so I found this book disappointing. It doesn’t help that Ramakrishnan lacks grace when it comes to some fellow scientists, and one scientist in particular. If all he says of Ada Yonath is true, she’s quite a piece of work, lacking in basic politeness to others, willing to steal from competitors to get ahead, and a terrible scientist who cannot accept when she is wrong. However, what emerged for me was a sense of a personal lack of warmth between the two amplifying her perceived faults, and the gossipy way this is passed on makes me think less of Ramakrishnan. He is always gracious to his male competitors, but can never resist revealing a nasty anecdote about Yonath, whether she overran the time for her presentation, left him out of a thank you speech, or allegedly had a student attend one of Ramakrishnan’s lectures to take pictures of his slides. His tone regarding Yonath is disingenuous, a sort of constant damning with faint praise.
Now, maybe she is all the things Ramakrishnan says, but I find it curious she would manage to get a Nobel if so, given the acknowledged politicking involved, along with the requirements of satisfying the committee that your contributions are worthwhile. I’m sure there have been undeserving Nobel prizewinners, and I know there have been prizes awarded for things that actually turned out to be wrong. But still. I don’t think Ramakrishnan’s line on Yonath does him credit.
It is interesting to follow a process of discovery like this, but it can be rather dry and technical — mostly spiced up by those bits of gossip and interpersonal strife. Given that on balance I find Ramakrishnan somewhat less than wholly charming, I wouldn’t wholly recommend this, though if your interest is more in crystallography and the structure of the ribosome than in the function of it, this may be more your thing.