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Review of The Bourbaki Gambit by Carl Djerassi

Erica Cannon 7 March 2005

I'm reading to be entertained, not to learn that much about DNA...

The Bourbaki Gambit is the second novel in Carl Djerassi’s "science-in-fiction" tetrology. The author, a professor of chemistry at Stanford University, has made no secret that he writes scientific novels (and more recently, plays) with the main purpose of educating the general public about science and scientists.

I found the book to be interesting and thought-provoking, but not because of the science. It was more a study in human nature with science used as a vehicle to display the issues.

The "Bourbaki Gambit" is secret research team organized by Max Weiss, a Princeton scientist fed up with the prejudices of the traditional system of academic publication. These scientists get together to publish anonymously as a group, under the single made-up name, "Professor Diana Skordylis". All have different motives for doing so and believe there will be no problems with their anonymity. The whole group is better than the sum of its parts, but they find themselves struggling with working on a great project but not being able to be recognized publicly. It all comes to a head when the discovery, involving DNA, turns out to be more spectacular than anyone could have predicted.

I recently saw the movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre with Humphrey Bogart, which had a related plot. The Bogart character thinks he can go prospecting, find gold and stop when he has "enough" – the gold won't affect him. Then the audience gets to sit back and see him almost go mad. The Bourbaki Gambit is very similar, yet set in a scientific environment.

As a non-scientist, I was able to follow the science – but I must admit that I ended up skimming through it. I understand what the scientists did – a lot of information was needed to get across the enormity of the scientific of the discovery, and Djerassi did pull that off. But I let the little details slide by. I think if I had been interested in understanding it all I could have. But I'm reading to be entertained, not to learn that much about DNA. It was more interesting seeing the academic side of life, which I haven't been around in the long time.

After thinking about it, I think that, to me, the science is not as important as the fiction. It is a way to get you thinking about something different – a new discovery, a new world. I'm currently reading In the Country of the Blind by Michael Flynn, which has very interesting ideas about history and changing things. The science it’s based on is Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine – what it could have caused in the 1800's and what the result of that would have been today. Science lets an author play "what if" ... and tell us what would happen.

You can buy The Bourbaki Gambit on Amazon