Carl Djerassi – Cantor’s Dilemma

Last modified: February 9, 2018

Cantor has a brilliant theory about how cancer develops. His best research assistant is assigned to provide the experimental proof and succeeds, resulting in a quick publication in Nature. But other scientists are unable to replicate his findings. It turns out that the assistant had given nature a helping hand, and may well also have done so on two further occasions. Cantor no longer trusts him and so devises a second experiment which he carries out himself, alone, with success. He and his research assistant are jointly awarded the Nobel Prize. The director of another laboratory, which is only able to replicate the earlier experiment once the assistant starts working there, realizes what has happened and blackmails Cantor to secure a Nobel Prize nomination for himself.

Cantor’s dilemma is that he is no longer able to reveal the misconduct in the first experiment without losing face – and the Nobel Prize. Moreover, the results of the second experiment support his theory. Meanwhile, the research assistant blames himself for bowing to the enormous pressure he was under and wrestles with his undeserved honour. The story presents the dilemmas facing the main characters in a credible manner, and shows how ambition in a competitive scientific domain can result in “industrial accidents”. In an afterword, the author suggests that manipulating the data to fit the theory is a regular occurrence, typically preceding a paradigm shift of the kind described by Thomas Kuhn. Even the likes of Sir Isaac Newton and Gregor Mendel have been guilty of it.

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