The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I am less than half-way through. This one deserves its place on top book lists (such as this one). So far, I think it gives The Rational Optimist good competition for first place in 2010.

The discussion of the origins of President Nixon’s War on Cancer is particularly good. This huge spending program was heavily influenced by the Manhattan Project and the Moon Project, even though many scientists at the time saw differences between the cancer-cure problem and those engineering tasks. The moral is that when a problem has not been solved in theory, throwing a lot of money at it will not get it solved in practice. Something to keep in mind next time you hear that we need a Manhattan Project to develolp cheap, non-fossil-fuel energy.

Another fascinating and instructive tale concerns the challenges with debunking and displacing the “radical mastectomy.” The surgeons trained in the practice made it difficult even to hold clinical trials of alternatives.

In Mukherjee’s account, real breakthroughs often come from outside the establishment. It seems to me that the book weakens the case for thinking of “science” as monolithic or for wanting to see centralization of power in research through government support/control.