Book Review: The Age of Living Machines

The Age of Living Machines: How Biology Will Build the Future is a decent book. It is well-constructed, short given what it covers, and Susan Hockfield’s writing moves quickly. However, it feels like an incomplete recounting of the fields she overviews, and at times it feels more like a PBS special than an informative book.

I’m sure you’ve seen at least one of those made for TV science specials. If not, think Neil deGrasse Tyson or Cosmos. Your well-known narrator starts the episode with a problem, a fact, or someone’s experience. We then follow them on a tour, first to a lab trying to understand the fundamentals then to an industrial partner or research station trying to apply the science. Finally, we circle back to our introductory problem, fact, or person to highlight a happy ending or some ‘hope’ for the future. If you can imagine what I described above applied to batteries made from viruses, water filters from trans-membrane proteins, next-gen prosthesis, cancer fighting nanoparticles, or plant biology. Congratulations, you’ve read the book already.

That being said, the science is actually interesting. The nanoparticles, viruses, and aquaporin technologies are amazing innovations and Hockfield’s writing highlights the scientists (graduate students included) and serendipity in a way that feels real. However, in an effort to bring this book to the broader public (for reasons I’ll touch on in a second), if you have background knowledge in any of the fields mentioned you’ll find yourself skipping pages of background explanation. I am still confused why so much time is spent with the scientists and on the specific research since ultimately, the projects Hockfield highlights (interestingly, all but one based at MIT) are exemplars of her vision of a second ‘convergence’.

The first convergence was of physics and engineering during World War II, a point you’ll tire of hearing quickly, but which gave rise to radar, better machines, and nuclear energy/weapons. This second convergence, Hockfield explains in the intro, will be between engineering and biology. Hence the title. This leads into my claim of incompleteness. While I am fully behind the idea she describes as a convergence, I use a slightly different name, synthetic biology. Two worlds entirely missing from the book. I wont grip about this too much because I can understand avoiding the term, however Hockfield describes biologists “making parts” out of biology as the key allowing effective engineering, is that not synthetic biology. Even more, read the title again, obviously this bugs me. The second point of incompleteness is a broader one, in highlighting examples of this convergence, the argument for the actual thing fall by the wayside. The book reads as more an overview of biology/engineering projects rather than a thesis for broad scale changes in research.

This is why the book was written for a broad audience and why it ultimately is lacking. Hockfield advocates for a reorganization of research to assist this convergence and in giving examples, we lose the thread of the argument. This book is stuck in the middle between what is being advocated and the audience it’s aimed at. Skewing in either direction would have been better for her, a more theoretical book written for academia, outlining the convergence would focus less on individual projects and more on the phenomenon itself. I think this would be like Stubborn Attachments by Tyler Cowen, a short book advocating for some eccentric position, written for those with some background in the subject. Skew the other way and we get a highlight of projects Hockfield finds interesting. A tour around the campus, showing the lay audience the cool things being done at MIT at the convergence of biology and engineering. Perhaps a series of episodes or a blog post or two. This middle ground does no one any favors, I would rather have read a hypothetical blog post or listened to the podcast with Kara Swisher. (Susan Hockfield: The real answer to sustainable energy might be a virus-build battery. Published May 31st).

I have a pet peeve for people who say “oh obviously” when you pull out and/or make explicit a permeating concept. I almost think Hockfield must feel the same way, a bunch of scientists saying, ‘oh duh’, and at the margins of the book she advances great ideas. A reorganization of funding agencies, changes in graduate and university programs, and massive government (and where needed private) investment. Ultimately this book makes a great case for the wizard’s view of The Wizard and the Prophet; but by showing examples Hockfield strays from her thesis and weakens its impact.


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