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Intuition

by Allegra Goodman

It is 1985. Harvard Yard is quiet with snow and Cambridge schools are closed, but at the Mendelssohn-Glass cancer research laboratory, four postdocs and a couple of lab techs are absorbed in their work. Extracting DNA in solution; examining cells; washing cells with chemicals; bursting cells open; changing cells forever by inserting new genetic material; measuring solutions millimetre by millimetre with pipettes; and preparing liquids, ices and gels. But peeling walls, crowded benches, out-of-date dials and a noisy centrifuge tell their own story: Mendelssohn-Glass is short of money.

Marion Mendelssohn and Sandy Glass, while presiding in unchallenged autocracy, are only too aware that it is the success of their labouring researchers on which the reputation of the lab depends. On the identification of a marker that would reveal a unifying syndrome underlying a mortal disease, or the discovery of a virus that could transform diseased cells into normal cells without relapse, rests a possible Nobel Prize, the probability of untold wealth, and, more to the immediate point, a substantial grant. Scientific methods are precise and calibrated and thousands of hours are spent exhaustively proving or disproving a theory. But the lab grant proposal for the National Institute of Health is imminent, and it is Sandy's business to apply for it. So when more than half the mice in Cliff's experimental group are in remission, Marion is reluctant to tell Sandy, although the ramifications could be breathtakingly significant.

So eager is Sandy for results, and so impatient of the time needed to verify their merit, that he over-rides Marion's caution and trumpets abroad what should have been treated as a bat-squeak, or, perhaps a mouse-squeak (except that the mice have been bred not to squeak, just as they had been bred to lack a thymus gland, enabling the study of tumours in vivo). Sandy articulates what every lab tech, and even Marion herself, knows perfectly well: talent, intelligence, brilliance, preparation and diligence get lab scientists through the door, but - this is the dirty secret - you need luck. And Sandy means to make his own...

INTUITION is a fascinating, well-informed and incredibly well-researched insight into university life and politics, and a shrewd and razor-sharp observation of human relationships. It is also about how pivotal a few careless words can be. The plot turns on whether or not the discretion of any one human being can, or should be, absolutely trusted, and how journalists and politicians rush to be the first to manipulate what ought to be the truth. I would think this novel is a gift to bookgroups of almost any creed or colour, busy or with time to spare, brainy or not. It's just a shame about the mice, but characteristically, Allegra Goodman tells the fictional truth.

Paula McMaster

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