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Under The Microscope

THE CHANGING WORLD, Edited by Patricia Fara, Peter Gathercole, and Ronald Laskey; The Darwin College Lectures, Cambridge University Press, 1996; 200 pages; $49.95

Reviewed by Vincent Gray

As an old-time graduate of Cambridge University, I sometimes have difficulty keeping up with all the new colleges. Darwin College is a graduate college established in 1964, which organises an annual lecture series by outside experts on current topics; this is the 1994 collection. The title is a catch-all for a set of rather miscellaneous subjects, the majority of which are political rather than scientific.

There is, however, one outstanding scientific essay: The Genetic Revolution by Kay Davies. It is one of the best up-to-date, short (18-page) surveys of this subject I have seen. The whole topic is a classic example of a huge technological advance set off by fundamental scientific discovery -- the chemical nature of DNA by Avery and Co, and the double helix structure by Watson, Crick and Co. It is a discovery which has already changed all of our lives and promises much more.

The article on The Aids Pandemic by Roy Anderson is almost as good. It takes a more detached view of this disaster than is usual, comparing it with other historical epidemics, and predicting that it is likely to follow a similar course. The facts and figures are very useful.

The rest, besides being political, are rather ephemeral, and lacking in solid facts. They start with Desmond Tutu, our contemporary saint, who gives a valuable view on the new South Africa, but with little we do not already know.

Helena Kennedy on Human Rights takes a typical lawyers' view, where passing laws tends to take precedence over considerations of how the laws are to be enforced.

Fred Halliday on Religious Fundamentalism in Contemporary Politics gives a useful summary of this major threat to human rights. Sara Parkin on Environmental Security writes a typical environmentalist tract. Other topics tackled in short fashion are The Role of the United Nations and Europe.

The book is rather short, and rather expensive for those only interested in one of the topics. For those with wider interests it might be considered worthwhile.