A meticulous account of slippery science that develops slowly into a panoramic view of the biomedical world.

SCIENCE FICTIONS

A SCIENTIFIC MYSTERY, A MASSIVE COVER-UP, AND THE DARK LEGACY OF ROBERT GALLO

Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Crewdson (The Tarnished Door: The New Immigrants and the Transformation of America, not reviewed) relates a cautionary tale of the American doctor who lied repeatedly to take credit for discovering the AIDS virus.

His story begins in the early 1980s when American men, Haitians, and Africans were dying of a mysterious disease. Luc Montagnier and his staff at the Pasteur Institute isolated LAV (Lymphadenopathy Associated Virus) from a pre-AIDS patient. Bob Gallo at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, believed the Human T-Cell Virus (HTLV) was the culprit. Both sides exchanged samples and claimed victory at medical conferences and in science magazines. In October 1983, the NCI's Mika Popovic performed an experiment that revealed the French were correct. The cause of AIDS was LAV, later shown to be a chimpanzee virus that spread to humans probably in the 1940s. Gallo buried Popovic's work; his French-provided sample of LAV “accidentally” became HTLV-3B, which he subsequently claimed to have had first. Gallo’s reputation and forcefulness convinced many in the scientific community, and so, despite Pasteur's earlier application, the National Patent Office granted him the first patent for an AIDS test kit. The kits, which failed to sense a crucial AIDS protein, were a disaster. False positive readings led women to abort healthy pregnancies: a false negative permitted an AIDS patient’s organs to be transplanted to seven healthy recipients. The second half covers the legal disputes and bureaucratic reviews of Gallo's procedures. A partial list of the extensive dramatis personae includes members of the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Red Cross and its French equivalent, editors of a half dozen science magazines, Abbott Labs and competing test kit makers, Congressman John Dingall (D/Michigan) and organizers of medical conferences around the world. Throughout, Crewdson's prose, with a minimum of esoteric passages, successfully clarifies the scientific material.

A meticulous account of slippery science that develops slowly into a panoramic view of the biomedical world.

Pub Date: Feb. 19, 2002

ISBN: 0-316-13476-7

Page Count: 672

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2001

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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THE RIGHT STUFF

Yes: it's high time for a de-romanticized, de-mythified, close-up retelling of the U.S. Space Program's launching—the inside story of those first seven astronauts.

But no: jazzy, jivey, exclamation-pointed, italicized Tom Wolfe "Mr. Overkill" hasn't really got the fight stuff for the job. Admittedly, he covers all the ground. He begins with the competitive, macho world of test pilots from which the astronauts came (thus being grossly overqualified to just sit in a controlled capsule); he follows the choosing of the Seven, the preparations for space flight, the flights themselves, the feelings of the wives; and he presents the breathless press coverage, the sudden celebrity, the glorification. He even throws in some of the technology. But instead of replacing the heroic standard version with the ring of truth, Wolfe merely offers an alternative myth: a surreal, satiric, often cartoony Wolfe-arama that, especially since there isn't a bit of documentation along the way, has one constantly wondering if anything really happened the way Wolfe tells it. His astronauts (referred to as "the brethren" or "The True Brothers") are obsessed with having the "right stuff" that certain blend of guts and smarts that spells pilot success. The Press is a ravenous fool, always referred to as "the eternal Victorian Gent": when Walter Cronkite's voice breaks while reporting a possible astronaut death, "There was the Press the Genteel Gent, coming up with the appropriate emotion. . . live. . . with no prompting whatsoever!" And, most off-puttingly, Wolfe presumes to enter the minds of one and all: he's with near-drowing Gus Grissom ("Cox. . . That face up there!—it's Cox. . . Cox knew how to get people out of here! . . . Cox! . . ."); he's with Betty Grissom angry about not staying at Holiday Inn ("Now. . . they truly owed her"); and, in a crude hatchet-job, he's with John Glenn furious at Al Shepard's being chosen for the first flight, pontificating to the others about their licentious behavior, or holding onto his self-image during his flight ("Oh, yes! I've been here before! And I am immune! I don't get into corners I can't get out of! . . . The Presbyterian Pilot was not about to foul up. His pipeline to dear Lord could not be clearer"). Certainly there's much here that Wolfe is quite right about, much that people will be interested in hearing: the P-R whitewash of Grissom's foul-up, the Life magazine excesses, the inter-astronaut tensions. And, for those who want to give Wolfe the benefit of the doubt throughout, there are emotional reconstructions that are juicily shrill.

But most readers outside the slick urban Wolfe orbit will find credibility fatally undermined by the self-indulgent digressions, the stylistic excesses, and the broadly satiric, anti-All-American stance; and, though The Right Stuff has enough energy, sass, and dirt to attract an audience, it mostly suggests that until Wolfe can put his subject first and his preening writing-persona second, he probably won't be a convincing chronicler of anything much weightier than radical chic.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 1979

ISBN: 0312427565

Page Count: 370

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 13, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1979

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