Books to Note: Fall 2008

Pontus Braunerhjelm; Maryann P. Feldman, editors. Cluster Genesis: Technology-Based Industrial Development. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 352 pp. $55.00 paper.

Reviewed By Jennifer Dionisio

With regional governments increasingly investing their economic hopes in promoting industry clusters, it seems the perfect opportunity to analyze the evolution of thriving, established clusters and younger, developing ones. In Cluster Genesis, editors Pontus Braunerhjelm and Maryann P. Feldman present a blueprint for informing current policy that is based on lessons learned from the past. Among the 12 essays, the first section chronicles the history of such successful clusters as Silicon Valley’s electronics industry and Boston’s and the Bay Area’s biotechnology industries. With the promise of biotech fueling much recent interest in the clustering phenomenon, subsequent essays that study emerging biotechnology clusters in the United States, Europe, and China provide a background on the elements involved in both planned and accidental cluster development. Although Cluster Genesis doesn’t promise a step-by-step instruction manual for cluster development, it certainly offers a thorough evaluation of its potential and limitations within industries and the areas that host them.



Jay D. Aronson. Genetic Witness: Science, Law, and Controversy in the Making of DNA Profiling. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007. 304 pp. $23.95 paper.

Reviewed by David S. Caudill

While the literature on forensic DNA technologies is substantial, Aronson’s Genetic Witness brings the unique perspective of a historian of science to the field. Aronson traces the 20-year history of DNA in the courtroom, including the initial (and predominant) involvement of private companies in the development of DNA profiling, the shift to governmental agency control of DNA identification techniques, the early conflicts within the scientific community, and the gradual establishment of DNA evidence within the legal system as the “gold standard” for proof. After briefly explaining how DNA profiling works, Aronson revisits the dramatic criminal cases in which DNA evidence was alternately challenged and validated. Nowadays, Aronson concludes, DNA profiling is viewed uncritically as a “truth machine,” not only for prosecutors proving guilt but also for defense counsel proving the innocence of some who were convicted on the basis of inferior forensic techniques. Without challenging DNA science, however, Aronson is able to demonstrate that the potential for serious laboratory, human, and interpretation errors remains.



Eric Roston. The Carbon Age: How Life’s Core Element Has Become Civilization’s Greatest Threat. New York: Walker and Company, 2008. 304 pp. $29.95 cloth.

Reviewed by Neil Gussman

The title of Eric Roston’s book might lead the reader to expect yet another breathless apocalyptic pastiche of all the reasons the planet is doomed. But instead this is a work from an award-winning journalist who has become quite enamored of organic chemistry. The book covers the first 12 billion years of carbon’s existence, from initial formation after the Big Bang through the middle of the 19th century, and beyond. For most of Earth’s existence, the planet’s changes in temperature affected the atmosphere’s carbon content; when the temperature increased, so did carbon. But for the last 150 years, the reverse has been the case: Earth’s temperature has reacted to rising atmospheric carbon levels, and since 1850 human activity has sped up the rate of change by a factor of 100. Throughout the book Roston delights in the details, investigating the nature of molecular bonds and explaining the reason that higher hydrogen content in fuels means better efficiency. Roston ends on a hopeful note, talking with the irrepressible Richard Smalley about carbon nanotubes and buckyballs.