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An Education in Irrationality

Michel Morange

Ahead of the Curve: David Baltimore's Life in Science. Shane Crotty. x + 270 pp. University of California Press, 2001. $29.95.

Ahead of the Curve is divided into three roughly equal parts. The first follows David Baltimore from his arrival in the field of biology through the brilliant, rapid rise to his discovery, at the age of 32, of reverse transcriptase, which would earn him the Nobel Prize five years later. This discovery was considered an important step toward understanding the mechanism of oncogenesis and dealt a blow to the central dogma of molecular biology. From Great Neck High School in Long Island, to Swarthmore College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, through the Roscoe B. Jackson Memorial Laboratory (where he met Howard Temin, with whom he shared the Nobel prize) and Cold Spring Harbor, David Baltimore was always in contact with the best labs and scientists, a situation that well suited this ambitious and intelligent young man. He was indeed ahead of the curve.

He decided to work on animal viruses and did his Ph.D. work at Rockefeller University. Animal viruses were thought to be the royal road to the study of higher organisms, much as the study of bacteriophages had been responsible for the molecular revolution of the 1940s and 1950s. His rapid characterization of viral replicase, along with his aggressiveness and self-confidence, brought him prominence. Over the following years, he published many excellent papers on poliovirus and vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV), first at the Salk Institute and then at MIT. Baltimore's discovery of an enzyme that could copy RNA into DNA was not the result of a sustained attempt to understand the role of viruses in cancer, like that made by Howard Temin. Rather, it was a consequence of the skills he had acquired in studying the molecular mechanisms of virus replication.

The second part of the book follows the parallel rise of David Baltimore as a scientific leader and manager. Baltimore's lab became famous for its contributions to the study of oncogenes, the characterization of the molecular mechanisms responsible for antibody diversity and the study of gene regulation. But Baltimore was also one of the main actors in the recombinant DNA controversy and played a key role in the organization of the national fight against AIDS. In addition, he was the founder of the Whitehead Institute at MIT and has been president of both Rockefeller University and, more recently, the California Institute of Technology.

The last third of the book is devoted to the "Baltimore Affair," a protracted investigation of alleged scientific fraud. This has already been extensively analyzed by Daniel J. Kevles in The Baltimore Case (W. W. Norton, 1998). Shane Crotty gives a simple and vivid overview of it, devoting a large part of his discussion to Baltimore's attitude and to the importance of some of his personality traits—honesty and arrogance—in explaining the mixed reactions of the community of biologists to the controversy.

This book is a scientific biography. Crotty devotes little space to his subject's private life. He rightly does not hesitate to dive into the details of experiments, at least in the first part of the book. For readers to get a full appreciation of Baltimore's weight within the scientific community, a more extensive description of the work carried out at his lab after he won the Nobel Prize would have been necessary. This is very much an American history, and little is said about research carried out in other countries; however, it is obviously true that the United States occupies an increasingly dominant position in the development of the life sciences since the advent of recombinant DNA technology.

The lesson from this "Life in Science" is nicely summarized on the penultimate page of the book. Science is synonymous with rationality, but a scientific leader has to learn what limits the effectiveness of scientists when they venture outside their labs—irrationality, passions and the weight of history. ("My whole life since I left my parents' nest has been an education in irrationality," said Baltimore at his Caltech inauguration.)

This lesson is strikingly different from that which emerges from the lives of biologists such as Max Delbrück, Salvador Luria and François Jacob, who belonged to the generation that preceded David Baltimore. In their day, scientific rationality was intimately linked with political passions and the flux of history. But the times were different: Theirs was a period of what Thomas Kuhn called revolutionary science. When David Baltimore entered biology, the molecular revolution was over: Now the goal was to unravel molecular complexity, not to prove its existence. In this highly readable book, Crotty shows how efficiently Baltimore did precisely that.—Michel Morange, Biology and Center for the Study of the History of Science, École normale supérieure, Paris

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