Natural Obsessions: Striving to Unlock the Deepest Secrets of the Cancer Cell

John Han-Chih Chang, MD
Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: November 1, 2001

Natural Obsessions Author: Natalie Angier
Publisher: Mariner Books, 1999
ISBN: 0-395-92472-3

OncoLink Rating: 3 Stars

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"Natural Obsessions is a book about the search for the molecular origins of cancer. What the book most emphatically is not about is the search for a cure for cancer." This is how the author describes her work in the introduction. She is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has written many articles on science. She has lost numerous relatives to different types of cancer, including her father at a young age; this provided the impetus to pen this book. In researching this book, she learned that cancer is a complex disease, and while scientists learn more about it every day, they do not hope to stumble upon a panacea. Thus, it is this quest for greater understanding, not the hope for a magical cure, that she writes about.

The author looks at the discoveries and advances that have been made in cancer research, while also exploring the scientists involved in this competitive business. She interviewed many scientists for this work. She observed two very competitive labs in particular: Michael Wigler's group at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, and Robert Weinberg's team at the Whitehead Institute of MIT. The doors of these two labs are opened to the reader, representing a microcosm of the world of science. The reader learns not only about the science and discoveries, but the people behind it all. The book reads like a novel, where the heroes are scientists with great minds, and equally great egos. The author shows us the world of cancer science, the day-to-day grind of running a laboratory, the finances involved, etc.

This is a fun and fast-paced book. It does not hope to teach much about cancer itself, rather it is meant to show that cancer research is tough, competitive, and yet entertaining. One word can be used to summarize this book: passionate. As the author states: "Yet always I have admired and envied scientists for the depth with which they love their calling. In this book, I try to give a sense of that love."