Title: Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life
Date Completed: 4/9/2011
Author(s): Marcus Wohlsen
Copyright: 2011, Penguin Group USA
# pages: 209
Genre: Science
ISBN: 978-1617230028
I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy of this book before it hits the shelves (althought it was released April 15th). Those of you who read my book summaries on a regular basis will know that I flirt with science quite a bit. I guess part of being a life-long learner is that you get involved with a lot of topics that have nothing to do with your day-to-day life. This is one of them.

This is a book about a trend that is sweeping the nation – DIY science. The easiest way to explain it is to use a very familiar example: technology. In the last five years, it has become common-place for people to start technology companies out of their garage. They figure out how to build an app that integrates with Facebook and they are suddenly running a big business. Facebook didn’t give them permission or have anything to do with it. It’s what open source coding is all about. Put the code out there so that anyone can improve upon it.

DIY science is the same. There is a story about a woman who developed a test for a genetic disease in her kitchen using household appliances. Her family has the disease, and the test is very expensive, so she decided she’d create one for less. For someone like me, who didn’t even take biology in school, this seems like something that could only be done by possibly the most intelligent people on earth. I’m dumbfounded by the thought that someone could, in the comfort of their own home, invent a test that involves DNA.

I mean, it seems like DNA is such a complex piece of engineering that it must be dealt with in sterile, white labs with men and women who wear long lab coats. Not a girl in her pajamas at her kitchen table. But, that is where technology has gotten us. It is just absolutely amazing.

The book really opened up my eyes to the possibilities that are out there. If you think about where we were with internet technology 10 years ago (can you say dial-up?), and think about where we are now, apply that same leap of sea-change to science and imagine what we could accomplish.

DIY science is a reaction to the institutionalized science that is being slowed down by corporate bureaucracy. As Wohlsen points out (page 4) “…life sciences as practiced by academics, corporations, and the government are hamstrung by politics and bureaucracy in ways that make cumbersome the beneficial applications of the latest life-science discoveries. They also believe that computers, genetics, and engineering are fast converging toward a single point where tinkerers and hobbyists without advanced degrees will soon be able to perform sophisticated feats of genetic engineering at home.”

This is a great book for anyone who has an interest in science, or wants to see advances in medicine at greater rates that we’ve seen them so far. You don’t have to know science to read this book. It is written so that people with no scientific background can understand the science. If you’ve got a teenager with an interest in science, you should have them read this book. It will inspire them to broaden their horizons beyond the typical research lab.