Cantor's Dilemma explores world of science and ethics
By Carl Djerassi.
Penguin Books, 230 pages, $7.95.
By DAVE WATT
CARL DJERASSI HAS WRITTEN AN exciting novel, his first, about a fictitious scientific breakthrough and the race for a Nobel Prize. On the way, Djerassi exposes many uncomfortable truths about how credit for scientific discoveries is given, and how competition, politics, and ego play a major role in many scientific inquiries. He also writes about the difficulties women face in climbing the academic ladder and gets in several good slams at Harvard to boot.
This disquieting novel, Cantor's Dilemma, should be read by everyone who wants to know how science really works. The freshman book committee ought to have this book on their short list, if for no other reason than to see professors squirm when they try to discuss it in the fall.
Professor Isidore Cantor, a brilliant molecular biologist who works at a thinly disguised University of Illinois at Urbana, comes up with a hypothesis about how tumors are formed. Cantor's colleagues at Harvard Medical School, where he first introduces the idea in a talk, immediately recognize the idea as brilliant.
Cantor's major competitor at Harvard is Kurt Krauss, a molecular biologist so famous he has a tumor named after him. "Not as ugly as Kaposi's, nor quite as famous as Rous', Krauss' sarcoma was distinguished by the fact that its discoverer, Harvard cancer doyen Kurt Krauss, was still very much alive," Djerassi writes. Djerassi understands how scientists become famous. Of named tumors is fame made.
What Cantor doesn't tell his audience is that he has an idea for confirming his hypothesis, which he is keeping to himself until he gets back to Urbana. He then assigns his best post-doc, Jeremiah Stafford, the job of doing the experiment.
They both know the call from Stockholm is at stake. But how far is Stafford willing to go to get the confirming result? After he gets a positive result, a group at Harvard is unable to confirm it. And someone slips a note under Cantor's door, suggesting that Stafford doctored the results. . . .
Djerassi's story is only in part about the science, though, exciting as it is. The
book contains many memorable characters. Celestine Price, Stafford's girlfriend, is an ambitious biologist who for a long time has planned her academic and emotional life in detail. When she decided in high school to lose her virginity, she seduced her swim coach one morning at 6:15 am, when no one could find them.
She lives with a graduate student in English named Leah Woodeson, who throughout the novel plays the role of Shakespearean fool, deconstructing and dissecting the hidden motives behind what professors say and write. Woodeson teaches Price and Stafford, and the unfamiliar reader, about modern literary criticism, while Price and Stafford educate her about their work.
Cantor himself, who keeps his personal life completely hidden from his students, collects erotic art and antique furniture, and plays the violin in a quartet. Cantor may seem to be an ambitious cold-heart, but even he can fall in love.
All of Djerassi's characters are sensualists, drinking down any interesting subject or experience they can find. They have an energy and broadmindedness worth emulating. It was exciting to read about people so intellectually alive.
Djerassi knows the world whereof he writes. He is a 67-year-old professor of organic chemistry at Stanford University, famous in his field for the first synthesis of the birth control pill. The science in the book is accurate down to some amazing details -- did you know that lining the cage of the bug P. apterus with The Wall Street Journal prevents its sexual maturation and causes its early death, but if you use The Times of London, nothing happens? It's true, it's in the literature, and only an author with the deep knowledge of scientific lore that Djerassi has could have found and included such a wonderful detail. The book is full of such tidbits,
all accurate. According to the author,
only Stafford and Cantor's experiment is fictitious.
Djerassi writes in a lively, detailed style, reflecting his long experience with and knowledge about the people and science he writes about. He already plans several more novels about the social implications of science and scientists' involvement in politics, according to an interview in the San Francisco Examiner. I have no doubt his future works will be as enlightening as this one.