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Book Review Djerassi's Park The Bourbaki Gambit. By C. Djerassi

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Djerassi’s Park
The Bourbaki Gambit. By C. Djerassi.
The University of G e o r g i a Press,
Athens (USA), 1994. 230pp., hardcover $ 19.95.-ISBN 0-8203-1652-0
Chemists often complain about their
poor public image. Instead of praise or
thanks for their
achievements they
are almost exclusively accused of
heinous deeds. Well.
a public image,
that precarious and
ephemeral notion.
is influenced by
many things, not
only by reports
of catastrophes, the
toxin of the week,
or the destruction of the environment.
Self-presentation is also important,
whether it be in television, film, or aesthetic literature. Compared with doctors
and lawyers, the number of chemists who
have given up their original career or who
write as a hobby is vanishingly small.
How Elias Canetti scornfully turned his
back on his chemistry studies can be read
in “Fackel im Ohr”, and what happens
when a nonchemist recruits his heroes
from our ranks is evident in Heinrich
Maim’s “Untertan”. That Carl Djerassi,
after an extremely successful career as organic chemist with hundreds of scientific
publications and several chemistry books
to his name, has defected from this literature to what he terms Science-in-fiction is
just as remarkable as it is welcome from
the above-mentioned considerations.
What is Science-in-fiction? On the one
hand a genre that enables the link between science and literature to be used to
This section contains book revieus and a list of
new books received by theeditor. Book reviewsare
written by invitntion from the editor. Suggestions
for books to be reviewed and for book reviewers
arc welcome. Publishers should send brochures or
(better) books to Dr. Ralf Bauiiiann. Redaktion
Angewandte Chemie, Postfach 10 11 61. D-69451
Weinheim. Federal Republic of Germany. The editor reser\es the right of selecting which books will
be rcvieujed. Uninvited books not chosen for
review will not be returned.
bring scientific knowledge and normally
unseen details of the life and career of a
scientist to a wider public. On the other
hand this concept embodies the claim to
provide a “high proportion of truth and
fiction”, that is, a particular quality of
accuracy and credibility, which even the
author finds an exacting demand.
In the first book of a planned trilogy,
“Cantor’s Dilemma”, the themes were
trust and ambition, truth and fraud in science. Besides the yearning of scientists to
be recognized by their peers, “The Bourbaki Gambit” tackles, in particular, the
problems that confront aging natural scientists in a society possessed by the idea of
perpetual youth. Such a natural scientist
is Max Weiss, Professor of Biochemistry
at Princeton University, who was manoevered by the skillful tactics of the dean
into early retirement. Deeply vexed he decides to take vengeance on the scientific
establishment in order to prove that researchers at his age not only can, but are
ideally suited to achieve outstanding results. He formulates the plan to work with
other like-minded scientists under a
pseudonym, just like the group of French
mathematicians which has really existed
since 1934 under the name Nicolas Bourbaki. The first he can win over to his
“Bourbaki concept” is the Innsbruck professor Sepp Krzilska, who has just retired
and is particularly piqued that the day
after his retirement every one of his nameplates had been removed from the institute. Then there is the Japanese Hiroshi
Nishimura of the University of Tokyo,
which has a particularly low retirement
age limit. At sixty he already has to face
retirement in the near future. The author
uses his participation to provide the reader with an at times quite protracted discourse on the Japanese scientific establishment. Although Mr. Nishimura
actually wants to devote himself to lyric
poetry, he is enthusiastic about the Bourbaki idea. As the fourth, and the only scientist not immediately faced with retirement, is the Professor of Mathematical
Biophysics, Charlea Cherith Conway,
called C, by the narrator. Together they
form a “biochemical Bourbaki” and
name themselves “Diana Skordylis”. Although she does not belong to the Bour-
baki group in the strictest sense, the list
would be incomplete without the historian Diana Doyle-Ditmus, whom the narrator nicknames D, (for the first person narrator, these abbreviations are
munemonics, which in addition have
“something so comfortingly chemical”
about them). Max Weiss meets her
through her grandchild. Jocelyn Powers,
one of his students who is later involved in
the project as a post-graduate.
As the notion takes shape, the problems begin to arise: What fields should be
covered in the first place, who should
have a casting vote in controversial decisions, what topic should take precedence?
The intention should, of course, remain
largely secret---besides, none of the members have stood at the lab bench for
decades. For that reason alone. the topics
for consideration must be mainly theoretical. Furthermore, since the four come
from different fields of biochemistry and
microbiology, it soon becomes clear that
a common topic is lacking. Initially,
therefore, extensions and corrections of
old papers are chosen for publication.
Above all, the development of a universally valid theory of epigenetics and the
application of catalytic antibodies are discussed as other research areas; incidentally, the latter theme is explained in lucid
terms, even for nonscientists. Then one
day Sepp Krzilska has the contagious
idea, namely the polymerase chain reaction, which was last year acknowledged
with the Nobel prize for chemistry. This
reaction actually has nothing to d o with
Carl Djerassi nor with the Bourbaki concept (the true circumstances of its discovery are at least equally spectacular and are
described by their discoverer K. B. Mullis
in a fascinating article in Scientific American). Nevertheless. the theme is eminently
suitable for the story--the genial simplicity of PCR enables the novel to present an
amazingly in-depth and yet extremely understandable account of the scientific implications. In this way Djerassi succeeds
in bringing this important new biochemical development, which has already been
widely applied, to a broad circle of readers. In addition the fictional discovery is
so spectacular that the plot reaches a climax shortly thereafter. At first the conceit
of researchers is evident. This does not
really apply to Hiroshi, whose chief interest anyway is his lyric poetry. Also for
Charlea the project is interesting for another reason, namely to explore the limits
of the possible. Max is in a somewhat different position, since he is beginning to
gather ideas for a later date in order to
publish them independently. The crucial
stumbling block, however, is Sepp Krzilska. who considers the whole discovery
his idea. For him it is a matter of utmost
importance, and at all events he wishes to
publish under his own name. An additional problem is that the fictional Diana
Skordylis is increasingly dragged into the
limelight of the scientific public-at first
she escapes, pleading “personal circumstances”-until
the award of the
renowned Levenson Prize exposes the
whole affair.
What makes this book a particular
pleasure to read is the excellent detailed
knowledge of the author. It makes the tale
so realistic that it could, in principle, happen at any time (or perhaps has happened
somewhere already?). The showplaces of
the plot--whether they be the annual conference of the National Academy of Sciences. the Virgin Islands, the Isle of
Capri, or the Villa Malaparte-are
described with a remarkable precision. In
addition, topical themes such as the position of women in the natural sciences are
also discussed. Furthermore, the story of
the love affair between two septuagenarians is charming.
If one expects to be informed and/or
entertained by literature, whatever the
genre, this tale by Djerassi from the world
of chemistry and biochemistry does both.
What more can one hope for? Give us the
third volume of the series (i.e. make it a
veritable PCR, a poetry chain reaction),
which is rumored to appear next year and
certainly will extend Djerassi’s (science)
park by another colorful sector, as soon
as possible.
Henning Hopj; Andreus Plugens
Institut fur Organische Chemie
der Technischen Universitat
Braunschweig (FRG)
amorphous state of matter. the author
and publishers have set out through this
English translation to bring it to a wider
international readership. Its format and
size are largely unchanged, but the style of
production is more up-to-date and the
new two-column layout emphasizes the
author’s concise and informative style of
writing. and leads the reader in a clear way
through the great wealth of data that the
book contains.
However, when one begins to examine
the contents in detail it becomes evident, if
one has not already realized this, that it is
essentially just a one-to-one translation of
the German version. The list of contents
(9pp.) has exactly the same length and
exactly the same unclear structure as its
predecessor. It could undoubtedly have
been made more useful and informative
by putting less emphasis on the fine detail
of the less important topics and instead
highlighting the main topics. The subject
index (1 1 pp.) is only slightly longer than
in the original version and consequently
does not contain much more information.
After a brief introduction the second
chapter is entitled “The Amorphous and
Vitreous State of Inorganic Materials”,
and deals with the conditions needed For
preparing glasses and amorphous solids,
the thermodynamic description of the
glassy state, and the types of phase transformations that can occur in such systems. In the section on the characterization of the structures of noncrystalline
materials the main approaches discussed
are the various diffraction methods (Xrays, electrons, and neutrons) and spectroscopic methods (IR, Raman, N M R ,
UV, Mossbauer, and EXAFS spectroscopies). In the section on the electronic
states in noncrystalline solids the author
develops theoretical models for describing
the phenomenon of electrical conduction
in amorphous substances.
The third and longest chapter, “Amorphous and Glass-Forming Substances”,
begins with elements and alloys, including
metallic glasses and amorphous nonmetals ranging from boron to arsenic and
antimony. Other glass-forming systems
are then discussed, beginning with the
various binary compounds and moving
on to the ternary chalcogenide systems.
Chapter 4, “Electrical Conductivity
Amorphous Inorganic Materials and
Glasses. By A . Feltz. VCH Verlags- and Optical Properties of Glasses and
gesellschaft, Weinheim/VCH Pub- Amorphous Solids”. describes these phelishers, New York, 1993. 440pp., nomena in detail, covering aspects such as
DM 198.00.-ISBN 3- the mechanism of charge transport and
photoinduced structural changes in
The publication of a translation of a
Almost ten years after the publication
of the original German edition of this now ten-year-old book prompts one to ask
well-established standard work on the whether the subject matter remains up-to-
_ _ _ _ ~
date, since even in the field of amorphous
materials, research has not stood still during the last decade. The first four chapters
have been updated only by briefly outlining the latest developments at the ends of
the chapters. Chapter 5, “Applications”,
is much better in this respect, as it has
undergone a considerably more thorough
revision. The topics discussed include the
latest trends and developments in applications of the semiconducting properties of
certain glasses and amorphous films, the
use of optical glasses for I R transmission,
and information storage based on the
structural changes that take place in
The aspects to be criticized, as in the
case of the contents list already mentioned, relate only to the formal presentation. Thus, the bibliographies are, as in
the German version, collected together at
the ends of the chapters. As a result of
this, especially for references that extend
across chapters, the corresponding citation in the text can only be found by a
time-consuming search through the book
or by consulting the not very clear list of
contents followed by much flipping of
pages. Also the old consecutive numbering system based on the German text has
been retained, so that new citations that
have been inserted into the text have been
assigned numbers that break the original
numbering scheme. On the other hand the
figures, which have only undergone slight
changes, are clear and are a great help to
understanding many of the points mentioned in the text.
The information has been assembled
with great care, involving an enormous
amount of work and attention to detail.
This is especially evident in the literature
references, of which there are over 2000;
their number does not fully reflect the vast
amount of individual data, as many of
these relate to monographs and review articles. The wealth of information is impressive, and could only be presented in
this form through the author’s precise and
economical style. However, the desire to
cover all the results and theories on the
amorphous state within a limited space
has unfortunately meant that some aspects, such as the sol -gel process o r solidstate N M R spectroscopy, could only be
treated briefly. The reader who would like
to learn more about such topics will certainly be disappointed at first glance on
opening this book. But on examining it
more carefully he or she will find that the
literature references open up access to the
whole range of the subject. In any case,
everyone interested in obtaining a comprehensive overview of the subject will
find this book indispensable. It is to be
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