This is not science fiction, but “science in fiction,” says Carl Djerassi, the celebrated Stanford chemist whose first novel, Cantor’s Dilemma, is being published this month by Doubleday. The novel portrays what Djerassi calls “the soul and baggage of contemporary science,” including its brutal competition, baroque professional etiquette, and complicated relations between professors and their students. Nearly all its science is real; also, real-life scientists and their work appear in context. Cantor’s Dilemma focuses on the issue of scientific fraud, which, Djerassi demonstrates, is often not a case of black and white, but a gray and misted region full of pitfalls for the easy moralist.

Djerassi’s protagonist, I. Cantor, is a highly respected cell biologist at a university in the Midwest. In these excerpts, Djerassi describes how Cantor pushes his brilliant postdoc Jerry Stafford for experimental verification of Cantor’s radical newthe- ory of tumori genesis—a theory that, the professor knows,...

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