Thursday, February 21, 2008



Allegra Goodman’s book Intuition is set firmly in the world of biological science, and explores the relationships, ambitions, and ethical standards of a group of biologists working in a research institute at Harvard in Cambridge Massachusetts. The Philpott Institute, which relies on public grants for its funding, is headed by Marion Mendelssohn, a pure scientist, and Sandy Glass an ebullient and charismatic oncologist. Under them is a team of Post Docs (scientists who have done their PhDs and are no longer students), researchers and technicians. Various trials are ongoing in the search for cancer cures. Cliff, a young, good-looking, and very ambitious Post Doc, seems to have discovered that the cancerous tumours in mice can be reduced by injecting them with R-7 virus.

Sandy Glass is jubilant and pushes for fast-track publication of the results as this will bring kudos to the Institute and secure further, much needed, funding. Marion is more cautious and feels it is too early to go public, but Sandy prevails. Robin, a senior Post Doc who is both colleague and ex-girlfriend of Cliff’s, is dubious about some of his results. She takes her concerns to Marion and Sandy but they do not take her seriously. Eventually, not able to cope with the pressure of having to work with Cliff on his project, and unable to continue her own line of research, she quits the Institute, and conveys her niggling doubts about the R-7 virus results to ORIS, the Office for Research Integrity in Science. She has lit the touch paper to a real brush-fire. The politics of scientific research on both a micro and macro level come under the spotlight of media attention, with unforeseen consequences for those at the Philpott and for Robin herself.

One is never quite sure of Robin or of Cliff. Were Robin’s motives in going to ORIS driven by unacknowledged jealousy of Cliff’s apparent success? Was Cliff so sure that he was on the right track with his research that he massaged the data to give favourable results? What IS truth in scientific terms?

What I really liked about the book was the sense that the researchers at the institute constituted a family, with Marion as mother and Sandy as father. They might squabble and bicker amongst themselves, but when faced with outside criticism they immediately presented a defensive united front.

Outside the genre of Sci-Fi – which may have many for all I know - it is rather surprising that there haven’t been many novels featuring science and scientists. Off hand I can only think of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, and Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis, and more recently The Andromeda Strain and Prey by Michael Crichton. As we move into the 21st Century, I predict that there will be many more books set in the fascinating world of scientific research.

A word of warning for any anti-vivisectionists reading this post – this book will have you baying for blood (so to speak) as the descriptions of the mice used in the experiments and what is done to them is fairly graphic.

Rated 4.5*


No ranting right now, I have been having the most wonderful time catching up with old friends. Going back to the school you left 40 years previously and sitting in the dining hall with the same people you sat with all those years ago certainly unlocks the memory vaults. Sights, sounds and smells came rushing back to mind.

Over the past four days we have had a full programme of cocktail parties, a church service, a lunch with speeches, a fantastic dinner which lasted until 2am, and finally, on a glorious hot day, a fabulous lunch on the terrace of one of South Africa's premier wine farms which is home to one of our classmates. As might be expected, there has been much laughter, a few tears, endless chatter, and an atmosphere of genuine affection for one another.


Before I left for South Africa we had friends round for dinner, and as the starter and main course were influenced by Thai and Indian cooking, I thought I should keep up the fusion food theme with the pudding, and I wanted something I could prepare in advance. This hit the spot, and everyone raved about it. A simple twist on an old faithful.

I'm afraid my photo seems to have vanished, I will try to get it back when I get home.

Serves 8

1 cup granulated or caster sugar
cup water
1 can (400ml) coconut milk

½ cup cream
6 large eggs
½ teaspoon vanilla
Pinch of ground cardamom (optional)

½ cup dark brown sugar – firmly packed

Toasted coconut and finely grated lime zest to garnish

Pre-heat the oven to 160°C

Set out 8 oven-proof ramekins.

Combine the granulated sugar and water in a small non-stick saucepan, heat gently, stirring all the time until the sugar is dissolved. Increase the heat and bring up to the boil. Boil without stirring until the syrup turns an even golden brown colour. It takes 5-8 mins, and you must watch it carefully as once it starts to colour it can overcook very quickly.

Remove pan from the heat and quickly pour some of the caramel in to the base of each ramekin, swirling it round to cover the base completely. Place them in a large baking tin with space between each and put to one side to set.

Whisk the eggs together in a large bowl, add the coconut milk, cream, vanilla, brown sugar and cardamom (if using). Beat together until well combined.
Carefully pour this mixture into each ramekin. Pour boiling water into the baking tin so that it reaches halfway up the side of each ramekin. Set the baking tin in the centre of the pre-heated oven and bake for 30 minutes or so, until the custards are just set. Remove from the baking tin and set to cool on a wire rack. When cool cover each ramekin with clingfilm and put in the fridge for 4-5 hours or overnight.

When ready to serve, run a knife round the side of each ramekin and carefully turn out onto serving plate. Sprinkle with grated lime zest and toasted coconut.
Delicious on it’s own or with a tropical fruit salad.

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