From Publishers Weekly
"Experiments are under way to create new forms of life," writes journalist Duncan, "[y]et we hardly know the scientists and others sweeping us into the new world." So this collection of biographical studies (expanding on an article in Wired
magazine) aims to introduce seven of the men and women on the frontiers of biotech research. To make these "very human, and therefore flawed" scientists more representative, Duncan (Calendar
) frames each portrait with the life of a mythic figure; James Watson (co-discoverer of DNA's double helix) as Zeus, for example, or Craig Venter (who founded a company to compete with the Human Genome Project on sequencing the genome) as Faustus. While the idea is intriguing, its execution is uneven—some profiles sparkle and some fall flat. The one constant is Duncan himself, whose willingness to inject himself into the story in unorthodox ways offers some of the book's highlights (submitting his own DNA for genetic testing, for example, to the geneticist with whom he played the game of basketball referred to in the title). Although his frequently voiced ambivalence about the morality of biotechnology sometimes seems cursory and contrived, his book as a whole offers a decent historical overview of the contemporary biotech landscape that will appeal to readers unfamiliar with its contours.
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Duncan interviewed seven of molecular biology's leading personalities about whether recombinant DNA technology should scare us. Besides relaying their discoveries, Duncan also elaborates on their demeanor during questioning, a ritual Duncan senses they've endured many times. This perception opens the avenue for assessing the scientist's attitude toward the public, whose tax dollars bankroll much biotech research. Several of Duncan's subjects, such as Douglas Melton, who is a leading investigator and champion of stem-cell research, patiently explain their research. By contrast, brashly ambitious scientists, such as James Watson or J. Craig Venter, are less concerned with public perception, and embody damn-the-torpedoes curiosity to reveal the secrets of life, or in Venter's current work, to create artificial life. To take the measure of such audacious egos, Duncan compares each interviewee to a mythical or biblical figure--Moses is his appellation for Nobel recipient Paul Berg, a 1970s pioneer of recombinant DNA who is notable for addressing its safety and ethics. Illuminating profiles of some of our most brilliant scientists. Gilbert TaylorCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved