Books to Note: Fall 2010

Daniel Carpenter. Reputation and Power: Organizational Image and Regulation at the FDA. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010. 856 pp. $75 cloth, $29.95 paper, $29.95 ebook.

The national debate surrounding the federal government’s role in health-care delivery makes Daniel Carpenter’s Reputation and Power a timely read. One of the questions that Carpenter raises and answers well is how and why a federal agency came to regulate all aspects of a major sector of the American economy. In order to do justice to this complex topic, Carpenter examines the FDA and pharmaceutical regulation from multiple perspectives—among them, history, political science, economics, and medicine. He argues convincingly that the FDA generated a reputation for vigilance, competence, and consumer protection, and subsequently drew on that reputation to expand the depth and breadth of its powers. Reputation and Power is a comprehensive and evenhanded piece of scholarship and a must-read for anyone interested in understanding pharmaceutical regulation, both in the United States and internationally. –Cynthia Connolly

David Fisher. Much Ado about (Practically) Nothing: The History of the Noble Gases. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 304 pp. $21.95.

David Fisher’s Much Ado about (Practically) Nothing has a simple goal: to show how the noble gases—the least reactive gases in the periodic table—have helped us understand the universe. The history Fisher describes reveals these gases’ roles in groundbreaking discoveries—from studying outer space and the creation of planets (helium and argon helped determine Earth’s age) to learning about our planet’s deep oceans and cancer (radon’s radioactive daughters). He keeps it short and sweet, narrating only important and interesting facts and stories, including his own research experiences with these elements. Fisher enjoys depicting the trials and errors of experimentation, which he finds to be the fun part of science. Fast-paced and humorous, the book keeps the reader’s attention, even during complicated passages. Balancing scientific technicalities and storytelling, readers with and without extensive scientific knowledge can enjoy Fisher’s book. –Crysta Jentile

Barri J. Gold. ThermoPoetics: Energy in Victorian Literature and Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010. 343 pp. $30.

Literature and science have often grappled with the issues presented by society and technology, sometimes even before such issues appeared in proper scientific garb. Barri J. Gold claims that energy—and its decay into unusable forms—made its way into some of the best-known 19th-century fiction and poetry at the same time scientists were struggling to understand it. Gold does not claim that scientists learned of energy, entropy, and heat death (a cons¬equence of the increase of en¬¬tro¬py) from literature; instead she shows  that an industrial society growing out of the work done by steam engines would naturally be obsessed with energy, fatigue, and loss in both mechanical and human terms. While occasionally careless with chronology, this book is engagingly written for those who love science and Victorian literature. –Michal Meyer

Ellen Leopold. Under the Radar: Cancer and the Cold War. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009. xi 284 pp. $25.95.

Under the Radar examines the role that cold-war ideology played in both the treatment of cancer and the research into its causes. The book features a tripartite structure. It covers the rise of cobalt therapy, which grew out of a combination of American’s cold war–era obsession with national defense and medical-industrial-governmental research. It also documents government suppression and cover-up of the effects of atmospheric nuclear-weapons testing. Finally, it reveals the shifting of the burden by both government and industry of environmental hazards (including carcinogens) onto individual citizens. While I believe that there is some worth to Leopold’s argument that cold-war ideology influenced treatments for and perceptions of cancer, she provides sparse support for her claims, pushing her arguments well beyond what her sources can support and also generalizing based on insufficient proof. This book reads like an account of a conspiracy theory but requires more factual evidence to make its claims compelling. –David J. Caruso

Duane S. Nickell. Guidebook for the Scientific Traveler: Visiting Physics and Chemistry Sites across America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010. 280 pp. $19.95.

From the nuclear testing fields of New Mexico to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Duane Nickell’s Scientific Traveler is a guidebook for those tourists who consider particle accelerators and atomic weapons to be the new wonders of the world. In his detailed descriptions of physics- and chemistry-related historical sites across America, Nickell exudes an appreciation for his subject matter that makes the book entertaining as well as informative. Selected sites cover a wide range of the scientific spectrum, including universities, laboratories, scientists’ homes, museums, and even breweries. Each entry begins with an anecdotal description that puts the site into context and provides historical significance for the scientifically uninitiated. The end result is a surprisingly comprehensive tour of over a century of American scientific innovation. –Zack Shapiro