Daniel J. Kevles is Stanley Woodward Professor of History at Yale. His recent works include The Baltimore Case and he is currently completing a history of intellectual property in plants, animals, and people.


The Genes You Can’t Patent

Newspapers showing front-page coverage of Angelina Jolie’s decision to have a preemptive double mastectomy to reduce her risk of breast cancer after genetic testing showed that she carried the abnormal BRCA1 gene, May 15, 2013
In a major decision issued on June 13, the US Supreme Court unanimously struck down the patents held by a biotechnology firm on the DNA comprising BRCA1 and BRCA2.1 These are the two genes that, in their abnormal forms, are known to dispose women to a dramatically heightened risk …

An American Passion Revealed

Beurre d’Aremberg pear; mid-nineteenth-century lithograph by the Amana Society, Iowa County, Iowa
Michelle Obama’s kitchen garden on the South Lawn of the White House merits a double brava!—apart from calling attention to the nutritional value of eating fresh, organically grown vegetables, it honors their global origins. We are not only a nation of immigrant peoples and cuisines. We are also a country …

Martyred by Monsters

Nikolai Vavilov’s life would make a chilling film about how visionary science and intrepid intellectual adventure in Soviet Russia blackened into a vicious persecution and a martyr’s death. Educated in the years following the rediscovery, in 1900, of Gregor Mendel’s laws of heredity in peas, Vavilov was by the 1920s …

The Poor Man’s Atomic Bomb

All the major belligerents in World War I save one were party to the Hague Convention of 1899, whose signers had agreed “to abstain from the use of all projectiles the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases.” The exception was the United States. The …

The Strange Case of Robert Oppenheimer

April next year will mark the centenary of the birth of the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the generation that built the atomic bomb. He had been a Wunderkind, the son of well-to-do German Jews in New York City, a brilliant student of physics at Harvard and Göttingen.

His Master’s Voice

President Charles William Eliot of Harvard unwittingly stimulated the creation of modern architectural acoustics when in 1898 he suggested that Henry Higginson consult with Wallace Sabine, a young member of his physics faculty, about the design of the new Boston Symphony Hall. Higginson, a financier, philanthropist, and owner of the …

Cancer: What Do They Know?

Vivian Bearing, the main character in Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Wit, suffers from advanced metastatic ovarian cancer. Having undergone eight full-dose treatments of an experimental chemotherapy, she muses that her doctors will no doubt write an article for a journal about her. But I flatter myself. The article will …

Darwin in Dayton

In 1925, the Scopes trial—“the trial of the century,” reporters said at the time—pitted Fundamentalist Christianity against Darwinian evolution in a sweltering courtroom in Dayton, Tennessee. The event was the basis of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s mid-1950s play, Inherit the Wind. Edward J. Larson observes in Summer for …

Endangered Environmentalists

In 1864, in his remarkable book Man and Nature, George Perkins Marsh contended that man’s small disturbances of the equilibrium of the natural world could transform and harm the land and its creatures, leading to disaster. Marsh was not a scientist but, by turns, a congressman, businessman, diplomat, and polymathic …

Greens in America

Rachel Carson died thirty years ago this past April, two years after the publication of Silent Spring, her path-breaking account of the myriad ways that pesticides, particularly DDT, were damaging the natural environment and threatening human health. Much of the book, now reissued in an anniversary edition, is devoted to …

Some Like It Hot

In It’s a Matter of Survival, Anita Gordon and David Suzuki report that in a 1989 radio interview, Lucien Bouchard, the Canadian minister for the environment, said of global warming: If we don’t move now there will be a disaster. I don’t want to scare people but we’re dealing with …

‘The Final Secret of the Universe’?

In his preface to Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, Dennis Overbye writes: It is probably part of the human condition that cosmologists (or the shamans of any age) always think they are knocking on eternity’s door, that the final secret of the universe is in reach. It may also be …

Begetting Big Science

These days, suspicion of big, federally funded scientific projects is perhaps more widespread than ever, in small part because they sometimes produce fallible technologies—spacecraft that blow up and space telescopes that don’t work—and in larger part because the enormous projects—for example, the superconducting supercollider particle accelerator, estimated to cost $8 …

Paradise Lost

Bill McKibben lives in the Adirondack Mountains, of New York State, in an isolated house some twelve miles from the nearest town. He works as a writer and spends much of his leisure time hiking in the surrounding woods. He regularly attends a Methodist church because he likes the fellowship, …