Showing 21 - 30 of 199 annotations tagged with the keyword "Science"

My Name is Mary Sutter

Oliveira, Robin

Last Updated: Feb-12-2012
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Mary Sutter has been trained as a midwife by her widowed mother, and has demonstrated an unusual aptitude.  She is an eager learner, but her deepest desire is to be a surgeon.  No medical school will take her, however.  As reports reach her home town of Albany of the escalation toward civil war around Washington DC, and in the wake of a disappointment in love,  she decides to board a train and offer her services to Dorothea Dix as a nurse.  Though Miss Dix refuses her on the grounds of her youth, Mary finds her way into apprenticeship with a surgeon who, as the numbers of injured climb, needs all the hands he can get.  Slowly and grudgingly, he comes to accept her as a competent assistant and, eventually, to teach her as a respected apprentice, and the remarkable companion she has become to him.  She learns surgery in the most grueling circumstances possible, amputating shattered limbs of young men, many of whom die anyway of infection or water-borne diseases.  In the course of her sojourn in Washington she meets John Hay and, through him, President Lincoln, whose compassionate attention she manages to direct to the dire need for medical supplies.  Two men love her not only for her intelligence and courage, but for the passion she brings to the hard-won skill that, though it cannot save her brother from the respiratory illness that is rampant in the camps, or her sister from a disastrous childbirth, saves many lives and makes a wider way for women of her generation who find themselves called to medicine. 

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Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA is the biography of the scientist whose research James Watson and Francis Crick needed to elucidate the structure of the DNA molecule.  Even though the discovery has had profound implications for modern medicine, Franklin's contribution to it almost remained obscure.

In 1968 Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) became visible to the world beyond a small circle of scientists when Watson published The Double Helix (1968), his "personal account" of puzzling out DNA.  If not for Watson's self-incriminating candor about stealing glances at Franklin's research, we might not know how crucial her lucid x-ray diffractions of hydrated DNA were to him and Francis Crick.  However, the account that indirectly acknowledged Franklin's contribution to their work represented her in a patronizing caricature.  Since ovarian cancer took her life a decade before Watson's memoir appeared, others have been left to respond to his version of the DNA story and representation of his female colleague.  Among Franklin's defenders, Brenda Maddox offers the most complete and insightful restoration of the scientist, her research, and her life. 

Maddox's biography draws from not only the many scientific archives and personal papers of scientists Franklin worked with in England, Europe, and America, but also from previously undisclosed letters written by Franklin, her friends, and her family.  Maddox also interviewed Franklin's relatives.  Doing so allowed her to position Franklin's life within the history of her close, extended Anglo-Jewish family, generations of wealthy London publishers and bankers who experienced discrimination.  This history does more than belie some of Watson's hasty assumptions about Franklin's background.  It creates a biography of a complex woman who negotiated biases as a citizen and a scientist.     

The biography is divided into three parts.  The first narrates the story of Franklin's childhood, rigorous education, and successful career before accepting the fateful research post at King's College, London.  She's known for thinking skeptically and working mathematically.  Yet early on she showed an aptitude for three-dimensional thinking and for understanding crystalline structures.   As an undergraduate at Cambridge she speculated about a "'Geometrical basis for inheritance'" (56).

The second section concentrates on the 27 months at King's when she worked uneasily with Maurice Wilkins, who showed her revelatory x-rays of DNA to Watson.   This balanced account of a controversial episode in the history of science offers evidence that Franklin was close to drawing the same conclusion about the structure of DNA that Watson and Crick rushed into print.  This section also accessibly explains the molecular biology of her day and the painstaking physical and intellectual intricacies of making and interpreting x-rays of crystalline molecules. 

The third section reminds us that Franklin had a very productive, though short career after leaving DNA to others.  She directed research programs for the study of plant viruses, and she investigated the polio virus shortly before she died.  Respected scientists, including Crick, praised her research.   Many, unlike Wilkins, liked working with her.  More than 40 years after viewing what's known as Franklin's Photograph 51, Watson publicly acknowledged that seeing it "'was the key event'" in understanding the geometry of DNA (316).  (See the note on Photo 51 below.)        

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

This is a huge and wonderful book about cancer, the collection of diseases that sickens people all over the globe and kills many of them. An epigraph to the book states, “A quarter of all American deaths, and about 15 percent of all deaths worldwide, will be attributed to cancer,” but the book also describes medical advances that now heal, prevent, or palliate most forms of cancer.

Mukherjee, a cancer physician and researcher, has several strong themes. He sees cancer as an affliction with a long history, a story worthy of a biography; indeed recent discoveries show it to be rooted in our genes (although external factors such as viruses, asbestos, and tobacco smoke can cause genetic disruption). The story of cancer implies a surrounding triangle, the stories of sick people, treating physicians, and biological researchers, all of which Mukherjee artfully weaves across 472 pages. Cancer has Rohrschach blot qualities: depending on time, place, and role in life, humans have perceived different attributes of cancer. As the book ends, however, there is a coalescence of scientific understanding that is satisfying—although there is certainly more to be learned and we are all still vulnerable to genetic errors and, of course, we are intractably mortal.

Another strand is the nature of stories themselves, their twists and turns, presumed early solutions, and personal and social values embedded in them. Mukherjee threads throughout the book the case of a contemporary kindergarten teacher, Carla Reed, who has a leukemia. He bookends his text with ancient Persian Queen Atossa with (presumably) breast cancer. Reed, healed by the end of the book, was Mukherjee’s patient; Atossa was described by Herodotus: both suffered emotional turmoil because of their disease.  Mukherjee understands the affective dimensions of disease for patients and caregivers alike; literature represents these in various ways, and he quotes in his chapter epigraphs and in his prose many writers who describe human experience deeply: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Susan Sontag, Charles Dickens, Thomas Mann, William Carlos Williams, Carlo Levi, and Italo Calvino, to name a few.

The primary story, however, is the interplay of cancer and a large cast of observers, investigators, doctors, scientists, activists, and government officials. Sidney Farber and Mary Lasker dominate the first 100 pages with their two-decade war against cancer. While surgery—historically dramatic and disfiguring—had been a mainstay for treatment of cancer, Farber pursued a biochemical route, which elaborated into chemotherapy, the second major approach of the late 20th century.

Mukherjee also explains ancient views, Hippocrates’, Galen’s humors, Vasealius’ anatomy, Hunter’s stages, Lister’s antisepsis, and Röntgen’s X-rays, which became the third major approach. By 1980, however, the American “War on Cancer” had not been won.

Further advances in cellular biology and genetics would be needed to make targeted molecular therapy possible.  Mukherjee tells this complicated story clearly and engagingly, showing the human investigators to be personable and dogged in their pursuits.  

Another important approach is prevention. The biostatistical work of Doll and Hill, for example, showed the links between tobacco and lung cancer. Screening, such as Pap smears and mammograms, also saved lives, but the basic cellular understanding still eluded investigators.

The final 150 pages explain the search for and discovery of genetic factors, specifically oncogenes. Harold Varmus and J. Michael Bishop were the leaders, winning a Nobel Prize in 1989. Bert Vogelstein, Judah Folkman, Robert Weinberg and Douglas Hanahan took the work further, opening the doors for such drugs as Herceptin, Gleevec, and Avastin. 

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Summary:

Candice Millard portrays several figures in the 19th century whose lives came together to change history: newly-elected President of the U.S. James Garfield; the insane would-be assassin Charles Guiteau; Doctor Bliss, the arrogant physician who claimed control of Garfield's care; Alexander Graham Bell, who invented a device to find the bullet; and major political figures of the time. Ironically, Garfield attended the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 where Joseph Lister was displaying his germ theory of infection and Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated his telephone. But when Guiteau shot Garfield in 1881, the bullets did not kill him.  What killed him after months of suffering was the massive infections caused by the doctors' probing without clean hands or clean instruments. At the autopsy, the doctors saw evidence of massive infections, but the bullet was encysted and harmless. All the probing by the doctors created a tunnel, but it was not the path of the bullet.  "Gentlemen, we have made a mistake," said the doctor.

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Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

This novel takes place during the Ice Age at a time when modern humans (Cro-Magnon) have immigrated into northern Europe and begun to interact with the Neanderthal people, who have already been successful inhabitants of Europe for perhaps 100,000 years. Within several thousand years of this fateful encounter, which took place about 35,000 years ago, the Neanderthal people had completely died out. Early mitochondrial DNA evidence indicated that modern humans are unrelated to the Neanderthal--their gene pool simply disappeared--although more recent studies show that perhaps 2 to 3% of our mitochondrial DNA was inherited from the Neanderthals, who prbably died out as a result of modern humans' greater success in competing for food and other resources.

In this scenario modern humanity originated from a version of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, of brother "killing" brother, except in the paleontological case the younger brother was responsible for the demise of the elder. Bjorn Kurten, an eminent European paleontologist, used this novel to present his ingenious theory to explain what happened.

The story is told from the perspective of Tiger, a young black (Cro-Magnon) man whose father is killed in a raid by men from another band of blacks. Later, he devotes his life to searching for his father's killer. In the process he travels widely and encounters a band of whites (Neanderthal), a seemingly primitive form of humanity known to Tiger's folk as "trolls." The trolls have a high-pitched, bird-like language that Tiger is eventually able to learn, even though it is virtually impossible for whites (trolls) to learn the black language, because they are unable to articulate the broad range of vowel sounds it includes.

The whites are also different in that their bands are equalitarian, with women playing major leadership roles, while black tribes are strictly hierarchical and patriarchal. Tiger travels with the white band and mates with Veyde, one of its prominent members. However, one day the band is decimated by a marauding black tribe led by the warrior, Shelk.

In the story's climax Tiger carries out a scheme to infiltrate the "bad" tribe and kill Shelk, who he believes is his father's murderer. In fact, ther real murderer was Shelk's twin brother, also called Shelk. The two had used the same name to make it appear that "Shelk" could be in two places at once, thus proving he had supernatural powers. We learn that the Shelk twins had mixed black-white parentage. Children of such unions seem god-like in that they are stronger and more attractive and creative than "normal" people of either group. The "good" Shelk finally finds the white father he has been searching for all his life. And, Tiger lives happily ever after with his white mate Veyde, but their children, though strong and resourceful, will inevitably be sterile. 

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

This short, gripping book describes Taylor's massive stroke, a burst blood vessel in the left side of her brain. Ironically, she was at 37, a neuroanatomist at Harvard, well versed in the anatomy and function of the brain. Her knowledge allowed her to understand from the inside her rapid loss of mental function and, with treatment, her very long (some eight years) recovery to health and, once again, professional activity.

Taylor presents an overview of brain structure and function, emphasizing the different roles of the left and right hemispheres. Since her left hemisphere was damaged and needed to be "rebuilt," in her term (learning to read, to dress herself, to drive a car, to think), she had plenty of time to explore her right brain and understand its wisdom and peace. This is her insight: our culture prizes the admirable but often frantic work of the left brain, putting us in stressed, competitive modes of thinking and acting, often aggressive and argumentative. "My stroke of insight," she writes, "is that at the core of my right hemisphere consciousness is a character that is directly connected to my feeling of deep inner peace" (page 133). Both sides of the brain have their strengths and uses, but she especially enjoys the spiritual and humane aspects of the right brain and, by extension, invites her readers to consider these resources for themselves and for the larger society.

Taylor credits her mother's care for much of the recovery, although it is clear between the lines that Taylor herself worked hard with various therapists (speech, massage, acupuncture). Despite the severity of her injury and the surgery, she appears to have returned to professional work at a high level, fully recovered and very grateful.

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Summary:

Creation tells the story of Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany) at home with his family in Down House during the last decade he researched and wrote, but hesitated to publish, The Origin of Species (1859).  The film represents the sorrow of those intellectually ripe years when he worked out his insights into the process of natural selection as his "radiant," beloved daughter Annie-Anne Elizabeth-(Martha West) became fatally ill.  These events were compounded by Darwin's own mysterious chronic illness, which he attempted to relieve through laudanum and trips to Great Malvern for Gulley's cold water cures.

In 1851 he took a very sick ten-year-old Annie with him to the waters and, inconsolable, left her to be buried in the local churchyard.  Through his physical and emotional suffering, he continued to dissect barnacles, breed and skeletonize pigeons, engage the village parson and local farmers alike, consult with supporters Thomas Hooker and Thomas Huxley, exchange hundreds of letters, and remain an affectionate father and husband. 

The loss of "the joy of the Household" strengthened his wife Emma's (Jennifer Connelly) religious beliefs, as it exhausted whatever might have existed of his. The story, artfully told in beautifully sequenced flashbacks, keeps the tensions and accommodations between Charles and Emma on the subject of religious faith in balance, emphasizing their loving partnership as spouses and parents.  Emma supported his work, read his manuscript, and understood its importance, even as she disagreed with its implications for her spiritual life.  Darwin contributed to the local parish church Emma attended.    

Some of the most compelling moments in the film occur during Darwin's joyous outings with his children when they suddenly witness the demise of woodland creatures.  In these scenes, the ineluctable struggles between life and death that Darwin's theory of natural selection eloquently describes resonate with his personal experience.  We see a fledgling fall from its nest near a sheep's skull and decay before our eyes.  We hear Annie explain to her horrified siblings that if the fox they encounter didn't kill the screeching rabbit in its jaws, its pups would die.

These scenes, along with the earlier view of the captive Fuegian child Boat Memory dying of small pox in an English hospital, suggest the fragility of the young that Annie's death makes devastatingly personal for Darwin.  The film simultaneously acknowledges Darwin's empirically derived logic of such deaths in his scientific treatise and his suffering from the brutal manifestations of that logic in the life of his family.  While scientific explanation fails to console him for the loss of Annie, the film suggests human affection as the best, though still potentially painful response.     

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Doctor Pascal

Zola, Emile

Last Updated: Aug-09-2010

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Doctor Pascal practiced medicine for twelve years. He now lives off his investments and has devoted his life to research on heredity. He has a giant armoire filled with his findings, including files on each of his family members. His mother, Madame Rougon, worries about her son. She had expected him to become a famous doctor. Instead, he accumulates possibly scandalous files about his family.

Madama Rougon tries to enlist Clotilde, Doctor Pascal’s niece, into her cause. Clotilde lives with her uncle and is loyal to him, but she sometimes fears that her uncle is tampering with God’s plans. One day, Clotilde gives in to Madame Rougon’s pleadings and gives her the key to the armoire. Dr. Pascal surprises them rifling through his work. He feels as if his family has betrayed him.

Clotilde repents, but when a Capuchin preacher comes to town, she again changes her mind and tries once more to destroy the files. Pascal once again catches her and to regain her trust tells her all about his project. She is half-convinced and promises to think it over.

She is also considering a marriage proposal from Dr. Ramond, whom she consults when Pascal falls ill. Pascal is afraid he is going mad, but he recovers, having received a serum Ramond invented. At this point, Pascal realizes he is in love with Clotilde, but so as not to interfere in her young life, he presses her to marry Ramond. She admits she can’t for she loves Pascal.

They become lovers, but Clotilde is called away to her ill brother in Paris. She returns home when she discovers that she is pregnant, but Pascal dies two hours before her arrival. Before his death, he had completed his files, but M. Rougon and his old servant Martine burn them.

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Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

Extraordinary Measures, based on events in the life of John Crowley and his family, dramatizes the father's quest to find a cure for Pompe disease, a relatively rare genetic condition that afflicts two of his three children.  The quest brings into play three powerful, often competing human motives:  a father's love for his children, a scientist's pursuit of knowledge and recognition, and a corporation's mandate for profits.  Crowley (Brendan Fraser), an energetic marketing executive, and his wife Aileen (Keri Russell) are told that their children Megan (Meredith Droeger), age eight, and Patrick (Diego Velazquez), age six, have reached the upper limits of their life expectancies.

When Megan, an affectionate, playful, and clear-sighted child, is rushed to the hospital with symptomatic heart and respiratory failure, a young physician empathically encourages the parents to think of their only daughter's immanent death as a "blessing" that will end her suffering.  However, Megan survives.  "So I guess you could say we dodged that blessing," Crowley echoes back to the doctor.  Seeing Megan's will to live reinforces John's wish to make her well, and he abruptly abandons his promising career to find a medical researcher who can reverse Pompe's effects. 

Immersing himself in medical journals and websites, John discovers the intriguing research of Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford).  A cranky, renegade scientist who thinks to the beat of rock music blasting from a boom box, Stonehill has developed a cutting-edge theory about correcting the enzyme deficiency in the cells of people with Pompe, which gradually weakens skeletal, respiratory, and heart muscles.  However, to produce a treatment derived from his theory, he needs more funding.  John immediately creates a fund to support Pompe research, and he and Stonehill form a mutually exasperating partnership.  They lock horns with each other, venture capitalists, and finally a large genomic research corporation, Zymagen.

Despite the scientist's abrasive ways, Zymagen gives Stonehill a lab and creates employment for Crowley.  However, the two confront the company's culture of rigorous competition among its scientists and its focus on profit margins that ignore the fates of individual children.  When the Zymagen scientists develop a promising therapy, they decide to offer the treatment only to infants, who are most likely to experience benefits.  Disqualifying Crowley's children from the promising trials, this decision, combined with Crowley's obvious conflict of interest, creates the film's final obstacle.  Stonehill and the executives uncharacteristically collaborate to overcome it. 

This ending might seem implausibly neat, but it's consistent with the film's mostly evenhanded approach to the dilemmas of pursuing treatments for orphan diseases.  Toward the end, we witness even Crowley, albeit uncomfortably, reaching beyond his fatherly motives for the Pompe project and turning his argument for bringing the treatment to market from children to profits.  The longer the patients live, John assures the executives, the more treatments Zymagen will sell.  The film leaves space for viewers to ask to what extent Crowley's argument creates a fair compromise or opens an ethical quandary.  In a closing narration, the film moves beyond the fictionalized characters and plot to the real Crowley children and a tempered victory.  Yes, the Pompe treatment stopped the progression of the disease and improved Megan's and Patrick's hearts.  But it has not cured the Crowley children, and almost certainly it won't.   The treatments do, however, show more success when taken at the onset of symptoms.      

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Mendel's Dwarf

Mawer, Simon

Last Updated: Jun-15-2010
Annotated by:
Clark, Stephanie Brown

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

This novel interweaves facts about the history of genetics with compelling fictional characters and plots in two connected stories. The primary story traces the life and work of the fictional Benedict Lambert, brilliant 20th Century geneticist, and an achondroplastic dwarf; his research is to discover the gene mutation which has caused his condition. He is also the great-great-great nephew of Gregor Mendel.

The life and genetic work of Gregor Mendel comprise the second story. Intersecting with Gregor Mendel's 19th Century scientific experiments to artificially fertilize pea plants is Lambert's affair with married librarian Jean Piercey. When Jean becomes pregnant, she decides on termination after learning from Benedict that there is "a fifty-fifty change of ending up like me . . . a second Benedict, another squat and crumpled creature betrayed by mutation and the courtly dance of chromosomes . . . " (180).

By the novel's end, Mendel's work has been published, and dismissed; Benedict Lambert has discovered the location of the gene mutation which causes achondroplastic dwarfism, publishes the results in Nature, and is asked to make a presentation on "the New Eugenics". Jean regrets the abortion, and wants Benedict's child, but a ?normal" one. In an attempt to help Jean in her quest, Benedict uses his genetic knowledge, his laboratory privileges, and his sperm without the knowledge or consent of Jean's husband.

In the lab with eight of Jean's fertilized embryos Lambert must decide: "Four of the embryos are proto-Benedicts, proto-dwarf; the other four are, for want of a better word normal. How should he choose?" The results of this scientific and personal act of fertilization are unexpected and tragic.

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