Review of “Cantor’s Dilemma” by Carl Djerassi

Although Cantor’s Dilemma was published in 1989, my earlier searches for fiction about science never turned up this book or even Djerassi’s name, and I’ve been asking myself why.  Once I started the book six months ago, I couldn’t put it down because for the first time, I felt I was reading about real scientists pursuing their careers.  I can claim few credentials in chemistry and molecular biology, so I can’t judge the fidelity of some of the details, but Djerassi’s descriptions of the scientific problem, Cantor’s theory and the experiment that becomes the focus of the story have the ring of authenticity.  I wish I’d read this novel more than a decade ago, when it first appeared.  It’s so well done, I wonder if I would have had second thoughts about pursuing my own novel.

Professor I. Cantor, a senior molecular biologist at a unidentified Midwestern university, has devised a theory of how tumors develop that could be applicable to all types of cancer — a startling claim in a field where many different mechanisms have been proposed to explain and treat the wide range of malignancies.  At the outset, he conceives an experimental test that he quickly persuades himself is elegant, decisive and sure to come out supporting his theory.  It is giving nothing away to tell that this idea will win Cantor the Nobel Prize.  Another cancer researcher, Kurt Krauss at Harvard, is both Cantor’s competitor and ally in the search for understanding cancer.  Krauss is better known — there’s even a sarcoma that bears his name — and widely respected and feared in the field.  After presenting his fledgling theory to Krauss’s notoriously brutal weekly research seminar, Cantor rushes home to carry out his crucial experiment.

After taking his most promising post-doctoral fellow, Jeremiah (Jerry) Stafford, into his confidence, he asks him to drop what he is working on and carry out the research secretly.  Jerry dutifully begins several months of night and day work in the lab at the risk of cutting short his budding relationship with Celestine Price, a graduate student in chemistry, who with her major professor is working on hormones in cockroaches.  All goes well, and a short paper with few details of the experiment appears in Nature, the most widely read scientific journal in the world.  Jerry is the co-author.

The fun begins when Cantor asks Krauss to repeat the experiment in his lab.  A post-doc in Krauss’s lab fails to replicate the results, and Cantor is faced with the first of several terrible dilemmas.  He rushed into print to establish priority, to claim credit for his theory and its experimental support, and his professional reputation will be seriously damaged by a retraction.  Djerassi’s narrative genius is apparent when he introduces Celestine’s roommate, Leah, a graduate student in literary criticism.  She as well as a woman Cantor meets later in the book act as ideal foils for explaining the complexities of the science, but also the culture and social norms of science.

I enjoyed this book on so many levels that I’d need at least half again as many words to detail them.  If you’re looking for a quintessential example of fiction about science (or LabLit or “science-in-fiction,” as Derrassi calls it), I’d say this is it.  My next post will be a more analytical commentary on Cantor’s Dilemma.

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