A Machine to Make a Future: Biotech Chronicles

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9780691126142: A Machine to Make a Future: Biotech Chronicles


A Machine to Make a Future represents a remarkably original look at the present and possible future of biotechnology research in the wake of the mapping of the human genome. The central tenet of Celera Diagnostics--the California biotech company whose formative work during 2003 is the focus of the book--is that the emergent knowledge about the genome, with its profound implications for human health, can now be turned into a powerful diagnostic apparatus--one that will yield breakthrough diagnostic and therapeutic products (and, potentially, profit). Celera's efforts--assuming they succeed--may fundamentally reshape the fabric of how health and health care are understood, practiced, and managed.


Presenting a series of interviews with all of the key players in Celera Diagnostics, Paul Rabinow and Talia Dan-Cohen open a fascinating window on the complexity of corporate scientific innovation. This marks a radical departure from other books on the biotech industry by chronicling the vicissitudes of a project during a finite time period, in the words of the actors themselves.


Ultimately, the authors conclude, Celera Diagnostics is engaged in a future characterized not by geniuses and their celebrated discoveries but by a largely anonymous and widely distributed profusion of data and results--a "machine to make a future."


In their new afterword, Rabinow and Dan-Cohen revisit Celera Diagnostics as its mighty machine grinds along, wondering, along with the scientists, "what constitutes success and what constitutes failure?" The pathos of the situation turns on how one poses the question as much as how one answers it.

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From the Back Cover:

"The stresses caused by the rapid growth of biological knowledge and capability will sorely test democratic societies in the coming decades. A first step in coping with these strains must involve expanding the discussion of the issues and the pace of change beyond the tiny circle of biologists and businesspeople now involved. Enter Rabinow and Dan-Cohen, whose investigations of Celera Diagnostics, a company at the forefront of research in human genetic differences, open the concepts, practices, and institutions of this revolutionary world to broader public scrutiny. Imagine if Tracy Kidder had written The Soul of a New Machine about a genomic diagnostics company, and informed it with deep, scholarly insight into science, business, and leadership, and you begin to get the scope of this book."--Dr. Roger Brent, Director and President of The Molecular Sciences Institute

"This fascinating book opens up a huge number of questions about how social scientists, anthropologists, or science studies practitioners write about science, scientists, technology, and innovation. It offers some of the most sophisticated and detailed accounts to date of the complexity, serendipity, and unpredictability of the very kinds of scientific innovation that are often described as being deliberately planned to serve specific interests or normative values. It is packed with very original data, its analytical style and argument are very provocative, and it makes a very timely contribution to the field. I have never read anything like it."--Sarah Franklin, author of Embodied Progress: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception

"This impressive book provides an accessible, frank, behind-the-scenes look at what is really likely from the much-hyped hope-inspiring mapping of the genome. Led by the brilliant questioning and set pieces Rabinow and Dan-Cohen have devised, the reader gains, on the one hand, a heartening view of collective scientific talent, ingenuity, and cunning at work. On the other hand, through their interviews the authors show what is really different about this work of scientists--the talented work under the shadow of the profit motive, risk, opportunity, markets, and the brutality, sometimes, of the verdicts of their capitalist patrons. All of this is ingeniously explored in this chronicle, in an involving and engaging way. I gained much from reading it both as an anthropologist and as a middle-aged general reader, like many others, interested in the imminent promise of genetics for medical care."--George Marcus, Rice University, author of Ethnography through Thick and Thin

"A Machine to Make a Future is an insightful and creative contribution to the literature--both scholarly and journalistic--on contemporary genomics. By 'experimenting' with narrative genre, the authors hope to generate different insights into the world of genomics and biotechnology than ones generally presented in existing accounts. They succeed at that goal, providing an account that is ethnographically rich and analytically open to a world whose structure, implications, and outcomes are very much in the making."--Nadia Abu El-Haj, Barnard College, author of Facts on the Ground

About the Author:

Paul Rabinow is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. His many books include French DNA, Making PCR, and Anthropos Today (Princeton). Talia Dan-Cohen received a B.A. in anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley.

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