Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology, by Paul Rabinow

Amazon link

A friend lent me this book, purporting to be “an ethnographic account of the invention of PCR, the polymerase chain reaction” at Cetus, one of the first biotech companies. Unfortunately, I think that the book fails at both of its primary tasks. As somebody who still doesn’t understand a lot of biochemistry despite having worked at a biotech firm for a few years, the book does an extremely poor job of explaining the scientific concepts involved. It throws around the terms primers, polymerases, and oligonucleotides as if the reader should already understand them. I never got a clear sense of what the science was, and the book suffered for that.

The book also fails as ethnography. It doesn’t do a good job of stepping back from the account and giving a larger picture of the scientific process. This would be okay in a case study, but it doesn’t cover the discovery in enough detail to make it work as that either. It’s trapped in between – a history of a specific company and a specific technology without enough detail to allow the reader to pick out the universal aspects. At the end, Rabinow draws some conclusions, but they aren’t well supported by the previous text, and are not very interesting conclusions anyway. For a more interesting take on the subject of technology discovery and how credit and blame gets distributed, I preferred Aramis, by Bruno Latour.

Lastly, the book is just poorly written. As noted, the scientific concepts and jargon are never explained. The book does not appear to have a tight focus. It wanders from the founding of Cetus and the difficulty of getting academic researchers to work in a corporate lab at that time, to Cetus’s attempts to get into the diagnostic probe market, to the theory of PCR, to the implementation and application of PCR. There’s very little holding the book together. Rabinow also includes interviews with several Cetus employees, but the interviews seem to be randomly dropped into the text without any connection to the text around them. It’s a frustrating read. I can’t say I recommend it.