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by Carl Djerassi

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1994
ISBN: 0-8203-1652-0
Publisher: Univ. of Georgia

In Stanford chemistry professor Djerassi's second attempt (following Cantor's Dilemma, 1989) at a genre he calls science- in-fiction, science thrives but fiction is anemic. His themes, announced in a rather didactic foreword, are the graying of Western science and the conflict between collegiality and individual scientists' personal ambition. The narrator, Max Weiss, professor emeritus of biochemistry at Princeton, seeks revenge against a system that forces retirement on people who are still productive. Borrowing an idea from a group of French mathematicians who for years published collectively and anonymously under the pen name Nicolas Bourbaki, he conceives of a stunt designed to show the establishment just how creative oldsters can be. Abetted in this venture by Diane Doyle-Ditmus, a driven feminist historian with access to grant money, Weiss gathers a diverse group of aging scientists with similarly bruised egos: Hiroshi Nishimura, a Tokyo biochemist with a penchant for poetry; Sepp Krzilska, an Austrian molecular biologist; and Charlea Conway, a mathematical biophysicist from Chicago and the group's only female scientist. After establishing the reputation of Diane Skordylis, their chosen pseudonym, with a number of papers in selected journals, they hit the jackpot with a revolutionary technique for replicating fragments of genetic material. (This advance brought its real-life developer, Kary B. Mullis, a Nobel Prize in 1993.) Success spawns problems, however, as the egos of individual scientists resist being submerged, and Skordylis's true identity is soon revealed before an appropriate audience. Unlike Djerassi's memoirs (The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas' Horse, 1992), which were filled with engaging stories, not much happens here, and when it does, it happens slowly. Moments that should be dramatic have a static quality, and the dialogue frequently sounds stilted. Djerassi takes pains to make the science clear, however, and the announced themes are developed fully. No Michael Crichton thriller, but an interesting picture of how real science operates.