When scientists go with their gut

Review Novel

March 05, 2006|By DIANE SCHARPER | DIANE SCHARPER,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Intuition

Allegra Goodman

Dial Press / 416 pages / $25

Cliff Bannakar has injected six groups of hairless mice with breast cancer cells - nine mice in each group and 54 in all. After the mice develop tumors, he injects three groups with R-7, a variant of respiratory syncytial virus. Several weeks later, he finds that the mice have tumors the size of marbles; two groups of the mice are dead; those in the third group are close to death - with the exception of three mice. Their tumors have shrunk. Why?

That question propels Allegra Goodman's third novel, Intuition, as it takes a roller-coaster ride through grant-driven medical research, with all its ramifications, from government funding to scientific integrity.

A National Book Award finalist for her first novel, Kaaterskill Falls, Goodman proves adept at translating scientific jargon into everyday language and charting the interior lives of researchers at the Philpott Institute in Cambridge, Mass., as they try to decide whether R-7 reverses cancer growth. One minute, it seems that Cliff deliberately suppressed three pages of notes regarding the mice; in another, that Cliff unwittingly misread his results because he followed his intuition.

Master of the succinct character sketch, Goodman pumps her writing with figures of sound like this: "At forty-nine, Sandy [the lab's co-director] didn't just endure, he adored his job. His ambition was not corrosive, but creative, a by-product of his buoyant spirit. Egotist, optimist, Sandy was a force of nature ... "

As she did in Kaaterskill Falls, Goodman lets her story evolve through multiple points of view. Although this technique slows the action, at times unnecessarily - a complaint also registered against the earlier book - Goodman energizes this plot through the significance of its subject. Kaaterskill was about the religious inclinations of Orthodox Jews (an exotic topic for most readers), but Intuition is about beating cancer through research. Who doesn't want to see - even fictionally - a cure for cancer?

Cliff certainly does. He has been developing R-7 just for that reason and has a gut feeling that he may be on to something. The most intuitive of all the characters, Cliff is a brilliant young scientist with a tendency to make snap decisions a la Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. Although Cliff knows better than to rely on his intuition, he has a tendency to do so.

Intuition is the linchpin of the novel. Not only is it Goodman's title, but she refers to the term so frequently that it becomes distracting. Intuition leads these characters astray, but it also motivates them to succeed. It drives them to hunches that just might work, but it simultaneously pushes them away from the empirical thinking necessary for accurate science.

Lab directors Sandy Glass and Marion Mendelssohn desperately want Cliff's study to work. Sandy, an oncologist with a deep concern for his patients, soon pushes Marion to publicize Cliff's very preliminary findings - partly because the lab is desperate for money, partly because he feels good about Cliff's results. Marion holds back but then gets caught up in the heady atmosphere of a scientific victory.

Cliff's research partner, Xiang Feng, who, like Marion, prefers to be sure of his facts before he speaks, wonders whether Cliff has discovered a miracle drug but later doubts Cliff's record-keeping. Xiang's tendency to ironic understatement, which adds a delightful black humor to the tale, helps him to filter out the hype while it causes readers to believe his perceptions, whether or not they contradict each other.

Cliff's colleague and erstwhile lover, Robin Decker, believes Cliff may have cut corners. After failing to produce results for several years, Cliff was on the verge of losing his job. But as Robin sees it, Cliff would not commit fraud, though he may have ignored data that didn't jell with his hunches. When Robin cannot duplicate Cliff's findings - none of her mice becomes cancer free - she has serious misgivings. Was his record-keeping sloppy? Did he suppress data? Did he lie?

Perhaps, as Cliff suggests, Robin has "screwed up" the results. Maybe Cliff screwed up. Robin believes the latter, but her belief is based on intuition. When it turns out that Cliff, too, has been acting on intuition, the tension ratchets up with a National Institutes of Health audit, congressional hearings and a compelling outcome, head-spinning for all concerned.

Diane Scharper, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, teaches at Towson University.

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