Customer Reviews


14 Reviews
5 star:
 (3)
4 star:
 (3)
3 star:
 (3)
2 star:
 (3)
1 star:
 (2)
 
 
 
 
 
Average Customer Review
Share your thoughts with other customers
Create your own review
 
 

The most helpful favorable review
The most helpful critical review


9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, and not all that fictional
"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...
Published on January 22, 2005 by Charles Ashbacher

versus
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Finally - an academic novel about science! But the plot...
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...
Published on August 14, 2000 by rainbowcrow


‹ Previous | 1 2 | Next ›
Most Helpful First | Newest First

17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Finally - an academic novel about science! But the plot..., August 14, 2000
This review is from: Cantor's Dilemma: A Novel (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. The strongest aspect of Cantor's Dilemma is its exploration of the complex blend of politicking, emotion, ambition, and collaboration, and friendship that together compose the interactions between a young postdoctoral fellow and his internationally-renowned mentor.
So why only three stars? Ultimately, the book disappoints. In his ending, Djarassi has chosen to abandon any pretense of realism, and to do so without any valid purpose. Neither irony nor necessity lie beneath Djarassi's plot direction; I can only conjecture that he allowed his novel to unfold as it does in order to provide some kind of grand and exciting narrative. A sad mistake; the drama here is truly all in the details.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, and not all that fictional, January 22, 2005
This review is from: Cantor's Dilemma (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. That experiment succeeds, although there is a rift between them, as Cantor is not completely sure that Stafford did not massage his experiments and data to create the desired results. Hence the title of the book, where Cantor has a difficult time deciding how to handle his doubts regarding his junior colleague.

It is difficult for someone who is not in the competitive area of science to understand Cantor's fear. Having to retract a published experiment is one of the greatest public humiliations that a scientist can endure. If scientists were polled, I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority would readily endure a severe public flogging rather than have to admit professional failure. The shadowy and often unstated worlds of recommendations, reciprocal praise and assistance; competition to be first, the proper ways to criticize the work of a colleague and even the "proper" way to have a sexual relationship with a student much younger than you are all covered. I consider this to be the best book on how science is really done that has ever been published. I spent two years as part of a physics research group and I can state from personal experience that the descriptions of how group competition takes place are right on.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars it never hurts to have a dictionary close by, April 8, 2005
By 
This review is from: Cantor's Dilemma: A Novel (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.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cantor's Dilemma is to chemical research as ER is to medicine, May 5, 2007
By 
Craig MACKINNON (Thunder Bay, Ontario Canada) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Cantor's Dilemma: A Novel (Paperback)
As a chemist and an active researcher, I approached Cantor's Dilemma with a different type of trepidation than most readers probably do. I knew I would have no problem understand the lingo and the science (Djerassi himself appears in several of my favourite reference textbooks and is often put forward as the prime example of scientific research driving societal ethics). No, I was worried that the book would disappoint in providing a watered-down or unrealistic representation of research. In some ways the latter is true (more on that below) but the book was thoroughly enjoyable once I recognised this important point: like an episode of the TV show ER, everything that happens in the book COULD theoretically happen, although it's unlikely it would all happen in a 1-hour time slot, or in a mere 300 pages.

The plot: the eponymous protagonist "I.C." Cantor dreams up a grand-unified theory behind the mechanism of cancer. He then proceeds to come up with an experiment to prove his theory and sets his top post-doctoral researcher, Stafford, on the project. After the experiment is performed and his thesis seemingly proven, Cantor and Stafford are awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. That is when the problems start: a fellow cancer researcher, the only one to whom Cantor has divulged the details of his experiment, cannot replicate it. Suspicion clouds the relationship between Cantor and Stafford as the latter's lab book is woefully incomplete and an anonymous tip implied to Cantor that Stafford was falsifying data. Sensing something is amiss, the researcher who cannot replicate the results starts subtly blackmailing Cantor, fishing for a Nobel for himself.

Certainly, there are clear-cut cases of academic fraud in the physical sciences: in my field (conducting materials) there have been a few notable cases of falsification of data. This is not limited to American universities - one recent case occurred in Korea, while another was in an American private lab (perpetrated by a Swiss national). As the book points out, these frauds are always exposed (at least, if they are important enough to be influential). Djerassi is too savvy to allow his protagonist to be caught in such a clear-cut case of fraud. This is why the book deserves a full 5 stars - Cantor is almost a classic tragic hero. His personal foibles and flaws inevitably lead him to a no-win scenario: he must succumb to the threats of his colleague or risk exposure and disgrace for something that isn't really his fault (if any data WAS falsified, it was by Stafford the post-doc, not Cantor).

The best parts of the book actually take place in Sweden, at the presentation of the Nobel Prizes. Unlike some reviewers seem to think, Djerassi himself has not won this prize (although he has won the Priestley medal, which is the highest American honour for a chemist). However, in these chapters he writes with an authority and skill that isn't as obvious in the rest of the book. Similarly, when his characters are involved in the everyday stuff - students asking career advice, for example, the characters are fully representative of the average professor at any academic institution from Harvard to the smallest liberal-arts college.

Quite aside from the main plot is the general presentation of the life of academics presented in the book. I was bemused by the extra-curricular shenanigans that fill much of the book and the fact that all the profs are "renaissance men". A university professor is just as likely to listen to Guns `n' Roses as Beethoven or BB King (I have CDs by all these people). Just as "Animal House" represents the fraternity lifestyle in a bizarre counter-universe sort of way, so too does "Cantor's Dilemma" represent a surreal superposition of modern-day research and the kind of hippy counter-culture that Djerassi himself helped usher into being with his discovery of oral contraception. Written in the mid-80s (published in 1989), Djerassi does not seem to have grasped the importance of the tectonic shift in academia away from liberalism to consumerism that was occurring at the time (students no longer attend university to learn per se, they go to get a degree that will allow them to get a good job). For example, when a professor beds a student from his first-year class, he only seems concerned with allaying her fear that she might become pregnant: "Don't worry, I've been fixed". Instead, the late `80s was dominated by AIDS and a few high-profile date-rape cases. To see professors so cavalierly disregarding current sexual mores is quaint, to put it mildly - if such a thing came to the notice of the upper administration of my university, the professor in question would quickly find himself escorted from campus by security and his office reassigned to a new faculty member by the time he got his pink slip. But again, for all its foibles, the book was extremely entertaining and I will likely be recommending it to my chemistry and academic friends for years to come.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A rather sophomoric effort (Spoiler Alert!), March 8, 2010
This review is from: Cantor's Dilemma: A Novel (Paperback)
I don't doubt Djerassi has the science in this novel right (it's his own field after all). And I'm sure his description of the fraught relationships between junior and senior scientists, of the politics and intrigues that characterize academic science, etc., are spot on. All of the material in CD pertaining to the above might have made for an interesting article on the sociology of western science. To this reader's disappointment, Djerassi chose, instead, to weave these details into a totally contrived narrative, itself not nearly as annoying as the cardboard characters he peopled it with. Other reviewers have noted what short shrift Djerassi gave the female characters in CD. Too true. The male characters in CD don't fare much better. The dialogue in CD is lousy; the story unbelievable (is there any chance the young scientist in this story would, in real life, have earned a Nobel for the work he did [it's not like he even designed the experiment, let alone advance the hypothesis; he simply carried out an experiment of his mentor's design]?; is there any chance of anyone receiving a Nobel the very same year as accomplishing the work for which they earned it? [I'm on shakier ground here; perhaps this has happened in the history of the prize] -- neither, especially the first, strikes me as likely). And if I had to read through one more juvenile sex scene, not to mention that beautiful young coed X threw herself at senior scientist Y, or that beautiful accomplished older woman W threw herself at senior scientist Z, I would have needed a crowbar to pry my eyeballs forward in my head. So much of CD read like the author's own private fantasy. A weak story very lamely told. 2 stars for the interesting insights to which I referred above.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Cantor Shmantor, May 13, 2000
By 
Sean Leckey (Staten Island, NY USA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Cantor's Dilemma: A Novel (Paperback)
I was at the talk of a certain Nobel Prize winner once and he said, half jokingly, that all science is motivated by hatred and envy. This certainly doesn't discount that and is fun to read for what it's worth.
I would however like to vent on the two main female characters. They're insultingly the most one-dimensional characters I've read in years. Granted, anyone who reads this book is looking for science anecdotes not general storytelling but I do have my limits
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars must read for graduate students in science!, June 14, 1997
By A Customer
This review is from: Cantor's Dilemma: A Novel (Paperback)
this book's reputation precedes inself but the actual book outdoes its reputation. wonderful and insightful and frightfully real. scary how the frailty of human nature is sometimes incompatible with the rigorous demands of scientific research. a must read for anyone in science
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


1.0 out of 5 stars Nothing more than bad romance, December 25, 2013
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: Cantor's Dilemma (Kindle Edition)
This book was terrible. It is nothing more than a trashy romance novel disguised as a book about academic dishonesty. The science was present for no reason other than for Djerassi to jack himself off to let us all know that he is intelligent. Poorly written, bad characters, and overall a horrific read.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


3.0 out of 5 stars More like 3.5 stars: 5 stars for raising the main theme, less for the other aspects, October 9, 2011
By 
G.C. (St. Louis, MO, USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Cantor's Dilemma
Carl Djerassi's "Cantor's Dilemma" appeared right around the time of the "cold fusion" controversy, some 20 years back. The novel's examination of the issue of scientific fraud was thus timely, and remains so now, as a way of examining the potential lengths that scientists may go to get the results that they hope to get. In that sense, scientists are human just like other people, in seeing at times what they want to see. It should be noted that in this scenario of fictional scientists like Isidore Cantor and Jeremiah Stafford, in work that is ground-breaking enough to lead to a Nobel Prize, it is never explicitly stated that one of the parties in the scientific work actually committed fraud in the lab. However, there's enough ambiguity to leave one wondering through the whole story, which is part of Djerassi's point, after all.

The novel reads breezily and goes down easily, even when it expostulates on the fictional tumorigenesis cancer theory. Djerassi is skillful enough to write such that any science doesn't overwhelm the intelligent lay person who isn't necessarily a scientist. However, while the topic is important and worthy of discussion by all people, scientists and non-scientists, to me at least, this novel is not "great literature", by any stretch of the imagination. The prose style is fairly pedestrian, almost journalistic in its straightforwardness. Any deeper resonances come from the dramatic situations and the continually teasing ambiguity of just what happened with respect to the key experiments.

In short: if you read this novel, it'll be for the "big idea" under discussion here, in Djerassi's self-coined genre of "science in fiction", and not because this is a "great novel", which it isn't.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


3.0 out of 5 stars More like 3.5 stars: 5 stars for raising the main theme, less for the other aspects, October 4, 2011
By 
G.C. (St. Louis, MO, USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Cantor's Dilemma
Carl Djerassi's "Cantor's Dilemma" appeared right around the time of the "cold fusion" controversy, some 20 years back. The novel's examination of the issue of scientific fraud was thus timely, and remains so now, as a way of examining the potential lengths that scientists may go to get the results that they hope to get. In that sense, scientists are human just like other people, in seeing at times what they want to see. It should be noted that in this scenario of fictional scientists like Isidore Cantor and Jeremiah Stafford, in work that is ground-breaking enough to lead to a Nobel Prize, it is never explicitly stated that one of the parties in the scientific work actually committed fraud in the lab. However, there's enough ambiguity to leave one wondering through the whole story, which is part of Djerassi's point, after all.

The novel reads breezily and goes down easily, even when it expostulates on the fictional tumorigenesis cancer theory. Djerassi is skillful enough to write such that any science doesn't overwhelm the intelligent lay person who isn't necessarily a scientist. However, while the topic is important and worthy of discussion by all people, scientists and non-scientists, to me at least, this novel is not "great literature", by any stretch of the imagination. The prose style is fairly pedestrian, almost journalistic in its straightforwardness. Any deeper resonances come from the dramatic situations and the continually teasing ambiguity of just what happened with respect to the key experiments.

In short: if you read this novel, it'll be for the "big idea" under discussion here, in Djerassi's self-coined genre of "science in fiction", and not because this is a "great novel", which it isn't.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


‹ Previous | 1 2 | Next ›
Most Helpful First | Newest First

Details

Cantor's Dilemma: A Novel
Cantor's Dilemma: A Novel by Carl Djerassi (Paperback - March 1, 1991)
$16.00 $12.92
In Stock
Add to cart Add to wishlist
Search these reviews only
Send us feedback How can we make Amazon Customer Reviews better for you? Let us know here.