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Time was when science writers confined themselves to the results--the new hopes/cures/discoveries/inventions. Now, more sophisticated writers are plumbing the process--how science gets done. Former Time reporter Angier is a case in point, as here she tracks science in the making by writing of a field that was just emerging in the early 80's: the study of genes that cause cancer. Her focus: Bob Weinberg's laboratory at MIT and later at the Whitehead Institute, complemented by visits to rival camps like Michael Wigler's Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., lab. In her words, ""Bob Weinberg is a creative scientist who likes big, unhomogenized problems. . .In the past, his emphasis on paradigms had helped bisect his lab into those who had results fit for the New York Times and those who didn't."" And what results. Weinberg's crew is credited with perfecting ""transfection,"" a method of dousing cells in tissue culture with the raw DNA extracted from tumor cells and demonstrating that some cells would take up the foreign genes and become cancerous. Then there was the work on specific cancer genes (oncogenes), showing that they were variants of legitimate human genes essential at some stage of development. Oncogenes were cloned and sequenced. In the case of the ""ras"" oncogene, the cancer gene differed from its normal counterpart at precisely one base in the DNA chain. The search would go on to find out how the genes work, what gene interactions are necessary to push a cell over cancer's brink, and what might thwart those events. The beauty of the how-it-happened narrative is the human drama, the roller-coaster highs and lows of life at a leading-edge lab where everybody is superbright and super-competitive. Angler captures it well, from the standard jeans, jargon, and jealousies to the fights and the depressions that in one case led to suicide. And the point is there for all to see: Science is not done by ""the scientific method"" so much as by insight, luck, and seat-of-the-pants experimenting.

Pub Date: June 7th, 1988
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin