Questioning Authority

Nearly half a century after they were first conducted, psychologist Stanley Milgram's obedience experiments still rank among the most important studies ever conducted in social psychology. In 1961 as a young professor at Yale, Milgram demonstrated that ordinary people would willingly inflict what they believed were increasingly painful electric shocks on strangers if ordered to do so by someone in a position of authority. Because they occurred and were widely publicized around the time of the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the implementer of the Nazis' Final Solution who insisted he was merely following orders, Milgram's groundbreaking experiments received worldwide attention.

The studies were controversial and remain so, largely because they involved deception (the shocks were fake, and the subjects who received them were actors). But they continue to resonate today because of how strikingly they illustrate individuals' willingness to subjugate their own judgment to that of authority figures.

As University of Maryland psychology professor Thomas Blass makes clear in his highly readable biography The Man Who Shocked the World (Basic, $26), Milgram's far-reaching influence in the world of psychology extends beyond the obedience experiments. It was Milgram, a creative, mercurial, dynamic rebel of protean talents -- he also made films and was involved in television production -- who originated the concept of "six degrees of separation." Before his death in 1984 of a heart attack at age 51, he also advanced the notion of the "familiar stranger" in urban life -- a person recognized because of repeated sightings, say, on the subway, but with whom one never actually interacts.

While Blass's book is not very enlightening on what made Milgram tick, his lucid discussion of the scientist's most important and controversial work and its implications is trenchant and provocative.

-- Sandra G. Boodman

A Shot Under Suspicion

In a 1796 experiment that would break today's ethical rules, British physician Edward Jenner inoculated an unsuspecting 8-year-old boy with cowpox extracted from a milkmaid's sores. Once the boy recovered from this mild infection, Jenner exposed him to smallpox, correctly surmising that he would be protected by his previous exposure.

Vaccine -- from vacca, the Latin word for cow -- is the name Jenner gave to his new discovery. Today, vaccines protect against a spectrum of diseases that once claimed millions of lives. Ongoing research fuels the hope that they will one day prevent HIV, Ebola virus and other deadly infections. But like all medical interventions, vaccines are not without risk. In 1986, Congress passed the National Childhood Injury Protection Act to protect vaccine manufacturers from lawsuits.

In The Virus and the Vaccine: The True Story of a Cancer-Causing Monkey Virus, Contaminated Polio Vaccine, and the Millions of Americans Exposed (St. Martin's, $25.95), science writers Debbie Bookchin and Jim Schumacher contend that public health officials ignored suspicions that the polio vaccines, especially the live vaccine developed by Jonas Salk, were contaminated with a cancer-causing virus now known as SV40. Between 1954 and 1963, an estimated 100 millions Americans were inoculated with this vaccine.

In sometimes breathless prose, the authors outline a scientific conspiracy and coverup. They find scientists and public health officials "firmly entrenched in the dogma about SV40" and unwilling to consider the possibility that the contaminated vaccine could be responsible for some existing cancer cases and a ticking time bomb for more.

Yet science is rarely so simple, and scientists are not often so neatly divided. While SV40 is linked to development of some tumors (as are several other viruses), much remains to be unraveled about its exact role and whether human exposure to the virus occurs largely from polio vaccine. At a 2002 meeting on SV40 convened by the National Academy of Sciences, researchers reported that multiple epidemiological studies have failed to link use of the vaccines and increased rates of cancer. The role of SV40 is still being determined.

No doubt the development of the polio vaccines and SV40 is a story worth telling. But what The Virus and the Vaccine illustrates best is the rapid advancement of scientific knowledge and the need for scientists -- as well as science writers -- to keep open minds and to stay focused on the evidence at hand.

-- Sally Squires

Impure Science

For all the purity and high-mindedness scientists claim for themselves and their work, they inhabit a realm no less subject to human folly and vicious competition than any other part of society. And in science, as elsewhere, the losers tend to be those less equipped to play the game.

In The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle (Henry Holt, $25), journalist and biographer Eric Lax explores the human drama behind the discovery and development of antibiotics, an achievement that brought to fruition the efforts of Edward Jenner, Joseph Lister and Louis Pasteur to understand and combat microbial disease. The commonly accepted story of the development of penicillin during World War II -- done on the cheap in British laboratories in the face of the Nazi onslaught -- is fascinating enough. In the hands of Lax, best known for his bestselling biography of Woody Allen, the story behind the story is nearly as dramatic.

The title character in Lax's tale is Howard Florey, who along with fellow Oxford researcher Ernst Chain shared a Nobel Prize with Alexander Fleming for the development of penicillin. That Fleming today is regarded as the discoverer of penicillin while Florey, Chain and their colleagues are barely known is not completely unjust: Lax likens him to a man who saw something shiny in the water at Sutter's Mill, was certain it was gold, but couldn't figure out how to mine and refine it. It was the Oxford researchers, Lax says, whose painstaking efforts resulted in methods for using the wonder drug to treat patients. (The book's title refers to their idea for preserving their research in case of Nazi attack: Florey and the others smeared bits of Penicillium notatum onto their clothes, where the mold could remain dormant and fleeing scientists could carry samples to safe havens.)

Lax attributes Fleming's lasting fame to a variety of factors, from competition for research funding to British bias (Fleming was a Scotsman, while Florey was Australian and Chain a German Jewish immigrant). But more than anything else, he sees Florey and Chain as having gotten so little credit because they labored under the quaint belief that science should be advanced purely for the sake of society rather than for fame and fortune.

-- Gregory Mott

Sandra G. Boodman, Sally Squires and Gregory Mott report on science and health issues for The Washington Post.

Dr. Jonas Salk injected polio vaccine in 1954