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Cantor's Dilemma: A Novel Paperback – March 1, 1991

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (March 1, 1991)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140143599
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140143591
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.5 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #167,671 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A distinguished cell biologist and his best student win the Nobel Prize for their cancer research but are suspected of falsifying experimental data. "Although Djerassi does not convince the reader that a prestigious prize can be awarded on such shaky ground, his scientific morality play works well," PW said of a novel that is "an absorbing view of big science at its seediest."
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Cancer research, insect biochemistry, and cell biology are not generally considered subjects for novelists. However, when the author is also a professor of chemistry at Stanford University and is known for synthesizing the first oral contraceptive, such subjects are not just appropriate--they're rich material for reflection. Like his protagonist, Professor I.C. Cantor, Djerassi is a "Renaissance Man"--scientist, musician, gourmet cook, and skillful writer of stories. His novel concerns the politics of scientific pressures--the race to publish first, the need to replicate experiments, and the necessity for unbiased hypothesis verification. Cantor's startling hypothesis on the etiology of cancer promise him a Nobel Prize, but issues of ambition, trust, and emotional blackmail must first be resolved. A recommended title; other novels dealing with science lack the realism Djerassi so ably provides.
- Ellen R. Cohen, Rockville, Md.
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Customer Reviews

I would however like to vent on the two main female characters.
Sean Leckey
I consider this to be the best book on how science is really done that has ever been published.
Charles Ashbacher
I don't doubt Djerassi has the science in this novel right (it's his own field after all).

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By "rainbowcrow" on August 14, 2000
Format: Paperback
It's just not fair. Academic novels - for all their delights - seem never to be set in science departments. From Lodge (Changing Places, Small World) to DeLillo (White Noise) to Russo (Straight Man), the hero or antihero is inevitably a professor of English Literature or some closely allied field within the liberal arts. (Some might point out that Jane Smiley's Moo is an exception; I would counter that it is also a disappointly weak novel.)
Of course, the temptation is always to dramatize (or satirize) that which one knows best, and with English faculty more prone to writing novels than are scientists, the scarcity of novels about physics, chemisty, or biology should come as little surprise. But finally, a scientist - Carl Djarassi - has entered the fray with a fine series of academic novels focused upon the natural science encampment of the Ivory Tower. Indeed, Djarassi's literary skills (while less likely to win him a second Nobel prize than his scientific ones) are of substantial merit.
The first of this series - Cantor's Dilemma - is not an academic satire, a la Lodge; instead, it is often praised as an exploration of the very serious ethical issues that arise when the stakes get high in the world of science. Indeed, the book does delve into this territory, and does so adeptly. And despite the serious subject matter, Cantor's dilemma is a fun read, and the pages fly by. The book's true strength, however, is overlooked in many reviews: Djarassi manages to present a penetrating look at the complex academic and personal relationships between two very driven men at very different stages in their careers.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Charles Ashbacher HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 22, 2005
Format: Hardcover
"The Double Helix", James Watson's classic account of the elucidation of the structure of DNA, is often cited as an excellent description of how science is really conducted. However, this work of fiction supplants it. Djerassi describes many of the calculations, both professional and interpersonal, that go into the making and reporting of a scientific discovery. He covers everything, from the prestige accorded to anything from Harvard, to the assignment of referees to examine submitted papers.

Professor Isidore Cantor, a researcher with his own large laboratory, has an "aha" moment, where he suddenly understands the mechanism behind a type of cancer. He presents the idea at a conference and everyone immediately realizes that if it can be confirmed, it is Nobel Prize material. Cantor assigns the experimental verification to Jeremiah Stafford, a postdoc that he considers his best experimentalist. With the assignment comes a great deal of pressure, as the experiment must be completed in a few months. Stafford succeeds, but under the strain, he does not completely document the lab work. This creates a problem when another lab cannot duplicate the work and the process that leads to them sharing a Nobel Prize for the work has already begun.

Cantor and Stafford then try to duplicate the experiment and all appears to go well. However, an anonymous tipster informs Cantor that Stafford re-entered the lab at a late hour, which leads Cantor to believe that Stafford is altering the experiment. This prospect terrifies Cantor so much that he devises a second experiment that he carries out in his own private lab, where no one else is allowed to enter under any circumstances.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By the heckler on April 8, 2005
Format: Paperback
Admittedly, I am not a science-minded person. I approached this novel with caution, expecting it to be overly-technical and boring. Nevertheless, I gave it a chance and found it to be not only intellectual, but highly entertaining.

CANTOR'S DILEMMA moves along at a brisk pace, only rarely getting bogged down in technical terminology and scientific analysis. For example, one such passage early on in the book states: "While the radioactive labels were intended to locate the protein in different cell fractions, the C-13 labeled arginine would shed light on the spatial arrangement of this amino acid within the protein molecule through its nuclear magnetic resonance spectrum. Only a cell biologist with a thorough background in chemistry would have come up with such an idea." To which I can only reply "OK...I'll take your word for it..." Indeed, there are numerous instances in the book where the average reader will have to take Djerassi's word for it. However, since Djerassi is a world-renowned scientist himself, I feel pretty comfortable in believing he knows what he's talking about.

There is only one shortcoming that really stands out in Djerassi's writing: his portrayal of female characters. The characters themselves are strong and independent women, however, they are relatively flat. They come across as thinly-veiled excuses for Djerassi to discuss a major problem in the scientific world: the lack of women among the upper echelons of the scientific community. In this noble endeavor, Djerassi discusses several solid points about gender inequality, making the hollowness of his female characters, in my opinion, excusable because they serve a higher purpose.

In CANTOR'S DILEMMA, Djerassi exhibits a flare for storytelling and shows that he has substantial literary chops to go along with his numerous scientific awards. This work provided a level of intellectual stimulation that I haven't received from a book in a while.
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More About the Author

CARL DJERASSI, born in Vienna but educated in the US, is a writer and professor of chemistry emeritus at Stanford University. Author of over 1200 scientific publications and seven monographs, he is one of the few American scientists to have been awarded both the National Medal of Science (in 1973, for the first synthesis of a steroid oral contraceptive--"the Pill") and the National Medal of Technology (in 1991, for promoting new approaches to insect control). A member of the US National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as well as the Royal Society (London) and many other foreign academies, Djerassi has received 24 honorary doctorates together with numerous other honors, such as the first Wolf Prize in Chemistry, the first Award for the Industrial Application of Science from the National Academy of Sciences, the American Chemical Society's highest award, the Priestley Medal, and more recently, the Erasmus Medal of the Academia Europaea (2003), the Great Merit Cross of Germany (2003), the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Chemists (2004), the Serono Prize in Literature (Rome, 2005) and and the Great Silver Decoration for Services to the Republic of Austria (2008). In 2005, the Austrian Post Office issued a stamp in his honor.

During the past 23 years, he has published short stories, poetry (The Clock runs backward) and five novels (Cantor's Dilemma; The Bourbaki Gambit; Marx, deceased; Menachem's Seed; NO)--that illustrate as "science-in-fiction" the human side of science and the personal conflicts faced by scientists--as well as an autobiography (The Pill, Pygmy Chimps and Degas' Horse), a memoir (THIS MAN'S PILL: Reflections on the 50th birthday of the Pill), a docudrama (Four Jews on Parnassus--a Conversation,) and seven plays: An Immaculate Misconception, Oxygen (written with Roald Hoffmann), Calculus, EGO, Phallacy, Taboos, and Foreplay.

Djerassi is the founder of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program near Woodside, California, which provides residencies and studio space for artists in the visual arts, literature, choreography and performing arts, and music. Over 2000 artists have passed through that program since its inception in 1982. Djerassi lives in San Francisco, Vienna, and London.

(There is a Web site about Carl Djerassi's writing at

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