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Nobel Lust: Fair Science, Foul Scientists : CANTOR'S DILEMMA by Carl Djerassi (Doubleday: $18.95; 229 pp.)

October 29, 1989|Bettyann Kevles | Kevles is a science writer whose most recent book is "Females of the Species" (Harvard University Press)

"Cantor's Dilemma" is a romp through the fields of academic science and also a cautionary tale. It is the story of Prof. I. Cantor, whom we meet as the book opens, at the very moment (3:31) that he scribbles an idea on the back of a laundry list at the Sheraton-Commander Hotel in Harvard Square that will catapult him to a Nobel Prize. The trajectory of Cantor's hypothesis, from laundry-list notation to seminar to experimental proof, is the meat of Carl Djerassi's compelling novel.

As the season of Nobel anointments draws to a close, we may do well to ask, with Djerassi, how the lure of laureateness affects scientists in fields where it dangles like a golden apple above the laboratory bench. Do physicists, chemists, biologists and physiologists select their problems, organize their research, even occasionally "trim" or "cook" their results with the prize in mind? Do contenders consciously go for the gold, and if they do, does this particular award, which brings elevation to demi-godhood, pollute the very professions it aims to honor?

Djerassi is in a good position to explore the questions. A distinguished chemist, he synthesized the first oral contraceptive and one of the first antihistamines, for which contributions he has, himself, won a host of honors and prizes. Djarassi has been professor of chemistry at Stanford University since 1959, during which time he has concurrently held several positions at the Syntex Corp., which he joined in 1949.

Djerassi refers to some of his own actual scientific explorations in cell biology in the guise of his hero's research, as well as to real insect biochemistry, which he also has done, using the work of one of his heroines, Celly Price. Though written for the general reader, chemists and biologists will enjoy the fillip of meeting old friends by name and seeing familiar research in a fictive setting.

The story is prefaced by a quotation from an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine. "It seems paradoxical that scientific research, in many ways one of the most questioning and skeptical of human activities, should be dependent on personal trust. The fact is that without trust the research enterprises could not function." But this question of trust is the heart of "Cantor's Dilemma."

Cantor "knows" that he has found a new theory of tumorigenesis because the hypothesis is just so beautiful. But the practice of science demands experimental proof. Not to be deterred, Cantor devises an experiment that can be done quickly, and then asks young Stafford, a brilliant experimentalist in his laboratory, to drop everything else to do the proof. Under pressure, Stafford neglects to keep detailed lab notes. When there is trouble repeating the experiment, Cantor discovers Stafford's sloppy notebook and jumps to the conclusion that the experiment didn't work. Rather than confront Stafford and perhaps have to publicly retract the original experiment, he holes up in his lab and works out another proof. The world of science then has two proofs of the hypothesis, one of which Cantor suspects may not work.

Cantor is not guilty of fostering a false theory, but in his rush for fame, he fudges the experimental history of the proof. Djerassi holds science to be self-correcting. In an afterword, he reflects that "in science there can be no perfect crime, no permanently unsolved murder because there is no statute of limitations." Biochemistry is never under indictment, even as his scientific characters explain to the bemusement of an engaging non-scientist, that "Publications, priorities, the order of the authors, the choice of the journal, the collegiality and the brutal competition . . . are soul and baggage of contemporary science."

He believes that science inevitably filters out error because the scientific method is one of constant replication of experiments so that false positives eventually are exposed. That the "eventually" can take a long time, during which people suffer or lives are lost in the case of pharmaceuticals, is not mentioned. Djerassi has a lot of explaining to do, and he does it by having his scientist compare the team-nature of contemporary science to the individual scholarship of literary criticism.

Along the way, we meet a handful of memorable characters that include Leah, the literary critic; Cantor and his nemesis Stafford, and Prof. Kraus, as distinguished a scientist as Cantor, who has the added honor of having a sarcoma named after him. Djerassi's women, though idealized, are especially intriguing: Celly Price and Jean Ardley are young biochemists marching to a different drum but heading for the same golden city-- Stockholm.

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