Book Review: Gene Machine by Venki Ramakrishnan

There are great scientists; there are prolific writers. But a combination of these traits is rare to find. Venki Ramakrishnan emerges as one of this rare kind in his first book “Gene Machine”.

In his book, Venki walks us through a gripping account of his illustrious academic career. He opens by recounting his indistinct graduate life and describes how things turn around on meeting his life partner, Vera Rosenberry. He then narrates how he stumbles upon the Ribosome and sticks to it even when it goes out of fashion.

In the chapters that follow, Venki describes how he takes small steps toward the big problem and jumps right in at the right time. He is honest about the general factors that helped him in his academic journey – being in the right place at the right time, having a great scientific network, and luck.

Venki presents complex biological concepts, devoid of jargons, in a way that is both relatable and understandable. He explains the deciphering of ribosomal structure with an overarching illustration of an alien trying to understand how a car works.

What is exemplary about Venki, as he comes across in this book, is his objective descriptions of his students, fellow scientists, and competitors. He never discredits his competitors, but plainly describes their contributions. In one of the chapters, he explains the contributions of leading scientists in the field to an award committee member.

The book is divided into twenty chapters, my personal favourite being “Coming out of the Closet”. Overall, Venki engages his readers in a special way with his elegant writing and intact element of suspense. His writing reflects his true self – emotions of excitement, anxiety, irritation, ego, and frustration. In the end, he is also quite frank about the politics of recognition and how big prizes corrupt scientists.

Overall, the book is totally worth the read – engaging, enjoyable and inspiring.