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The Bourbaki Gambit


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Carl Djerassi is an internationally renowned scientist whose books include the novel Marx, Deceased; his autobiography The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas' Horse; essay, poetry, and short-story collections and two plays. A professor of chemistry at Stanford University, he is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and is one of the few American scientists to have been awarded both the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology.


The second entry (after Cantor's Dilemma) in his projected tetrology integrating science with fiction again finds Djerassi, professor of chemistry at Stanford and the inventor of the oral contraceptive, less successful as a novelist than as a scientific thinker. Here he tries to combine an accessible depiction of the research scientist's insular world with an ingenious academic hoax, but this flat, plodding novel fails to come to life. Organized by Max Weiss, a senior Princeton biochemist demoted to researcher, the gambit is a secret team of disgruntled veteran scientists working and publishing under a single alias, a fictional identity free from the scientific community's prejudices. This cover collaboration works well until they develop a breakthrough in DNA replication, the Polymerase Reaction Chain (a genuine recent technique). Then egos clash and exposure looms. The book is best when rendering the hard science into narrative form, such as the group's collaborative discussions, culminating in their revolutionary brainstorm (explained in near-layman's terms). Though Djerassi's characters are intended to address timely issues of gender and age discrimination in the scientific community, as well as the larger concerns of reputation and creation, they merely embody these discontents and arguments as case studies. A sluggish setup and the anticlimax of the group's exposure give this novel the vitality of an academic conference paper. (Oct.)

Djerassi's latest novel, a love story with a clever scientific twist, concerns a practical joke played by four scientists, who create an imposter to take credit for an important biomedical discovery. Seeking professional revenge, they create Professor Diana Skordylis, a composite of themselves, in order to make a statement about age discrimination, peer recognition, the plight of women scientists, and the conflicts of collaboration. Readers should not be deterred by the scientific subject matter; Djerassi's plot line is understandable as well as enjoyable. This prolific author, a respected professor of chemistry at Stanford University, has won numerous scientific awards while at the same time producing absorbing, eminently readable fiction (e.g., Cantor's Dilemma, LJ 8/89). Recommended for public and academic libraries.-Ellen R. Cohen, Rockville, Md.

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