Books to Note: Spring 2013

Book shelf.

New books from the wide world of chemistry.

Ricki Lewis. The Forever Fix: Gene Therapy and the Boy Who Saved It. New York: St. Martin’s, 2012. 336 pp. $25.99.

Forever Fix is narrative science. Through the stories of patients and their families Ricki Lewis—a geneticist by training—gives us a biography of gene therapy. She presents some of its darker stories, including that of Jesse Gelsinger, the first person to die during a clinical trial. But despite these tales Lewis believes gene therapy has a positive future. Her protagonists are patients, their families, and the science of gene therapy, while surprisingly the antagonists are often bioethicists and researchers. The best chapters are found in the book’s second half, where she presents accounts of how patients and their families experience gene therapy. Lewis is adept at telling very human stories, particularly from the patients’ perspectives. Corey Haas is her main hero: the book’s title refers to him. He is a young boy with Leber’s congenital amaurosis, an inherited eye disease that causes vision loss beginning at birth. Gene therapy dramatically improved his vision, giving him a chance at a more normal life. Other patients and family members also serve as surrogate heroes, especially parents, who are portrayed as brave and dogged activists for their children. This book is not a balanced account of the story of gene therapy and its actors: researchers’ stories and perspectives are omitted. But Lewis provides compelling and compassionate stories about these patients and their families that will likely strike an emotional chord—though some might prefer less of Lewis’s voice and more first-person accounts in her characters’ own words.—Pei Koay

 

Michael D. Gordin. The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. 304 pp. $29.00.

Lessons abound in The Pseudoscience Wars. Possibly the most useful—and most frustrating—is the impossibility of clearly demarcating pseudoscience from real science. As author Michael Gordin makes clear, pseudoscience can exist only in a world in which professional science is highly valued. A perfect example: in 1950 psychoanalyst Immanuel Velikovsky wanted his work to be taken seriously by scientists. He began to thrust his theory of catastrophism—wherein a comet was ejected from Jupiter, brushed Earth, and caused many of the disasters listed in ancient mythologies—into scientific forums. American scientists may well have ignored him if they had not already been reeling from the Soviet state’s denunciation of genetics in favor of Lysenkoism, another perceived pseudoscience. Coming during the McCarthy era of political persecution of liberal scientists, the publication of Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision by a respected science textbook publisher left many U.S. scientists worried that science itself was under siege.  Scientists responded by attacking Velikovsky and his book, which led to another lesson: avoid making martyrs. The subsequent controversy kept Velikovsky in the public eye. Proponents of denial science like creationism learned from the Velikovsky affair how to create controversy in areas of scientific consensus and to call into question the authority of mainstream science. This book is recommended for anyone interested in public perceptions of science.—Michal Meyer

 

Morton A. Meyers. Prize Fight: The Race and the Rivalry to Be the First in Science. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 272 pp. $27.00.

Prize Fight brings to vivid life one of the reasons CHF exists. Chemistry is a human story—full of passion, drama, competition, and some very nasty rivalries. Readers who believe that scientists are dispassionate observers who put intellectual rewards ahead of ego will find Morton A. Meyers’s book surprising and informative. Meyers tells a good tale about nastiness among the scientific greats. One caveat: Meyers is a medical doctor, and his book centers on two complex tales with medical themes. In the first Selman Waksman sought to develop an antibiotic that would kill germs resistant to penicillin. Waksman came to the United States in 1910, and over the next quarter century he built a successful career, attracting such graduate students as Albert Shatz. In 1943 Shatz made a breakthrough that led to the discovery of streptomycin, for which Waksman later received a Nobel Prize. Shatz was not included as a prize recipient and eventually sued for credit. He won the legal battle but became a pariah for betraying his mentor. Meyers’s other case study concerns magnetic resonance imaging, and here he critiques those behind the scenes who influence where and to whom funding goes. Prize Fight is a good read for those who want the human dimension of science in their recreational reading. Chemists who wish to explore acute rivalry as a theme should also consider The Cathedrals of Science by Patrick Coffey, a fascinating book that tells why chemist Gilbert N. Lewis never won the Nobel Prize.—Neil Gussman

 

Claudio Tuniz. Radioactivity: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. 144 pp. $11.95.

Oxford’s Very Short Introductions series has an intriguing purpose: providing a stimulating and accessible way to learn about a new subject. Claudio Tuniz must have suffered some anxiety in tackling radioactivity, a subject as big and old as the universe, in 144 pocket-sized pages. But by all appearances undaunted, he opens Pandora’s box and moves quickly through those aspects of radioactivity that affect humans the most—energy, food, water, medicine, death, destruction, and the origin of the earth itself. In all these areas the tension between the thrill of anticipated benefits and the fear of massive harm is maintained and explained. The author’s primary area of interest is shown in the last two chapters, which take up a quarter of the book. Here he focuses on radiological dating technology and its conclusions regarding the origins of life on Earth and the creation of our planet. Much of this material would be better served with its own separate Very Short Introduction. Such a book would allow a briefer, more balanced treatment in this book on the role of radioactivity in archaeology. For example, Tuniz shows how uranium-lead dating on a zircon grain from Western Australia gives a date of 4.4 billion years for the earth. But he also includes Aboriginal origin stories in this chapter. The mixing of anthropology and radiodating may pique interest in more anthropology, but the length of the series doesn’t allow for much discussion.—Bob Kenworthy