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Meet the WritersImage of Devra Davis
Devra Davis
Good to Know
Davis was fired from her first job as a summer camp counselor in New England. Recalls Davis, "I had taught the campers 'marching' songs, some of which I had learned from my drill sergeant father, like 'Dirty Lil' and 'Sound Off' and others which were anti-war ditties, such as 'I Ain't a Marching Anymore,' and 'The Cat Came Back.' I got canned because the camp director made me out to be someone who would not always fall in line. Who knew?"

Davis on her family ties: "I am very proud of my big-talking, big-walking siblings and my own grand, noisy Langer, Davis, Morgenstern, Tuckfelt, Goldenberg family, where, as in Garrison Keillor's famous town, all the children are above average, all the women are strong and all the men are good looking. My daughter Lea just graduated from Oberlin College with a double major in the two things you are not supposed to argue about in polite company -- Politics and Religion -- and is teaching in a very modern Orthodox Jewish pre-school in Northern California that includes several gay parents. My son, Aaron, is a former United States Marine and is en route to becoming a real chef, so he is both strong and secure. My husband, Richard Morgenstern, regularly traipses around Asia getting governments to reduce their use of filthy, sickening fuels. The entire lot of us likes to work just a bit outside the box."

According to Davis, "The town I grew up in was famous in the way that Jack the Ripper and the Son of Sam were famous, so of course nobody ever talked about it. Only when I went away to college did I ever hear that a town called Donora had been badly polluted. I was really shocked and believed that there just had to be another Donora somewhere. There was not."

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In the fall of 2002, Devra Davis answered some of our questions.

What was the book that most influenced your life -- and why?
From the time I was quite young, I loved listening to the brutally frank stories of love, hate, jealousy, spite, revenge and mercy in the Hebrew Bible. I attended a heder. "Heder" is the Hebrew word for room. Our Donora, Pennsylvania heder was filled with sibilance of chanting children of various ages, most just muttering in rote recitation, others who understood the meaning of the comforting ancient sounds. I never achieved any fluency in Hebrew but have remained enthralled with the intricacies of that language and many others. A change in a single vowel can produce a completely different meaning -- for instance, two identical roots of consonants can be interpreted either to signal that humans "dominate" the earth or are its "stewards." The fact that humans are created last in Genesis reminds us that we come from the earth and the words used to name us make that profoundly clear. The Hebrew name for earth is "adamah." That for man is "adam." The connection between the two in English would be as direct only if we called humans earthlings.

Music was always very important to me. My family reports that when I was eighteen months old and my mother was in labor with my brother Stan, I would sit for hours and listen to Mr. Gimel -- my grandmother's upstairs boarder -- play his beautiful black forest cello. I still adore listening to and sometimes playing that instrument. As a young girl, I got to sing in the shul choir right up front by the Torah. I was crushed when I was sent to the women's section -- in the back -- at age 11 because I no longer looked like a child. I also loved the sounds of Gregorian chants and Christmas carols, and at one point joined some friends in one of the local church choirs.

Donora was a steel town built right into steep hillsides inside a horseshoe bend on the Monongahela River. There were about 50 Jewish families in town. Everybody worked hard and there was little of what could be called an intellectual climate. The Rabbi in our small community was a terrific storyteller, and early on I was pretty excited to figure out that there was not just one way to look at a given tale in the Bible. As the oldest of four children in a family that resided in two bedroom homes, and living in a town where children roamed pretty freely, listening to these stories and later reading as much as I could took me to places I could never reach in any other way.

In the first grade I had a memorable and gifted teacher, Ms. Rowena Fisher, who nurtured my appetite for reading and learning. She sent me to a local college for "testing," from which I brought home a book on the "exceptional child" for my very young and busy parents. The report sat in the piano bench, where my folks did not take much notice of it. I read it and felt a kind of badge of differentness about which I had mixed feelings. My nickname was the "walking dictionary." In a town where every boy yearned to be a football hero and every girl aspired to be a cheer leader or drum majorette, and where the small local library had about 200 volumes, being known for one's vocabulary was not a welcome distinction. I began to write early on. One of my first poems spoke of "soft crackling autumn leaves," which is pretty funny. Donora actually did not have many living trees. The plumes from the mills kept anything green from growing in many places.

I also loved to talk and to question. Because my beloved Grandmother Pearl was in bed most of the time, she was always available to tell me stories from Russia, Hungary, and the occasional lusty Yiddish joke. Both my Grandmothers would brag in Yiddish: "She is a little devil with a big mouth." By listening to them and yammering with my teachers, the Rabbi and the local nuns in a town where television had not yet seeped into daily life, I entered an amazingly full world.

The Hebrew Bible is not a simple book and I am by no means a master of it. But reading it did teach me how to answer a question with a question. I also became fascinated with what the modern world considers footnotes. Books have been written on the meanings of the very first word of the Bible, boresheet. In learning about our contentious oral traditions, I felt a part of something grand and wonderful. I would sit for hours and listen to the Rabbi discourse on the hidden meanings of certain phrases and etymological roots of words. I adored the midrashic tradition of telling stories as way to clarify, debate, revise, amend, or otherwise account for the Bible's true intent. I also spent hours talking with the nuns at the local convent and making up some pretty far-fetched stories about what our bible really said, comparing notes on how such different traditions could arise from the same stories. It also did not escape my attention at a very early age that for every interpretation there could be any number of different opinions, yet even then, some eternal truths spanned all religions I knew of.

What are your favorite books -- and why?

  • Kleine Schriften -- including On Perpetual Peace and Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals -- by Immanuel Kant. The entire Kantian system can be daunting, but these smaller essays are fairly approachable. Kant believed that one has a duty to act as if there is universal justice, as if there is shared goodness, as if there can be perpetual peace. He asked us to assume the best, even in the face of desperate tyrants. Expecting the best still strikes me as a far better and more comforting way to live than to assume the worst, though we need to be prepared for the likelihood that reality will not conform to our hopes no matter how dearly we hold onto them. "Was Mann musste, Mann kann." Meaning, what a person feels obligated to do, she can do....

  • The Frontier in American History by Frederick Jackson Turner. I remember arguing about this book with my history teacher at Taylor Allderdice High School, Nelly Norkus. She made history a living, breathing pageant with this book and others by first-rate American historians like Beard and Billington. At that point, I had never been west but was enthralled, like many kids, with all the western imagery of the movies and our culture. The Wild West seemed mostly a good thing, especially to a headstrong youngster seeking new worlds. Later I learned the bitter side of western expansionism for Native Americans and the violence of sheep and cow wars. But the metaphor of the frontier provided a clear image of our land that fit the Cold War era.

  • The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism Max Weber. It astonished me. Here was a somber German scholar who managed to come up with creative ways of looking at the links between religion, economy and social institutions. Weber takes pithy aphorisms from Ben Franklin -- a penny saved is a penny earned -- and weaves them into an impressive explanation of why Protestantism spawned markets and mercantile society. In contrast, neither eastern religion nor Catholicism included any rationale for saving money in this world, since they basically bet that the next one would bring you to your maker or else send you back in another form. The Protestants, those who were elect of G-d, literally had a calling, ein Beruf. Many were called, but few were chosen, and those who were had to prove it by accumulating goods. This was not because the goods had any value per se but because this accumulation signaled their owner's close ties to what was holy.

    This book stayed with me throughout my formal education, as it showed how searching scientific study could be conducted on the most ordinary parts of life. Having had a truly outstanding experience in what would later become the honors college at the University of Pittsburgh, I finished high school with enough credits to be nearly a junior at Pitt. I took graduate seminars on Weber -- where his writing on "objectivity" in science resonated powerfully against Stalininst science -- as an undergrad, and ended up with an undergraduate bachelor of science degree at the University of Pittsburgh and a Masters in Sociology in 1967.

  • Moses and Monotheism and Civilization and its Discontents from Freud. From the moment I first read Freud, I struggled mightily against his views of women as failed and lesser men. Yet I understood with these studies that the interpretation of myths and dreams and the understanding of our primitive instincts provided a powerful way to make sense of our world. These works also fostered a much broader vision of the role of religious stories and images for the meanings that we confer upon the world. The entire concept of psychoanalysis of dreams, of course, comes from the Joseph story of the Bible, so I made the sort of vastly oversimplified connections between disparate entities that commonly strike eager young students as wisdom. Still, it concerned me that Freud never himself had been analyzed.

  • Moving Beyond Words by Gloria Steinem is such a deceptively powerful book. It provides a breath of fresh air on Freud and on being a thinking female in a male ruled world. Her essay "What if Freud Were a Woman?" is a classic and a hoot -- both a humorous romp and a serious piece of scholarship. The footnotes make clear that Freud and some of his followers engaged in some of the very taboos such as incest about which they wrote. If Freud were female, Steinem argues, we would have concepts of testyria, rather than hysteria -- the latter term coming from the Greek word for uterus and believed by Freud to occur only in women. For a female Freud, menstruation would be celebrated rather than dreaded, and men would be afflicted with womb envy. When I first met my husband, Richard Morgenstern, at Queens College where we both taught as young professors in 1971, he had completed a study showing the men at the City University of New York earned on average $2,000 more than women, taking in to account number of publications, quality of training, etc. I quipped to the Faculty Senate, "Now we know what penis envy is really about."

    As a late life aging jock, I found Steinem's essay on the strongest woman in the world a terrific expression of how modern society had kept women from finding or even flexing our muscles. Steinem nailed it perfectly. We grew up steeped in a culture where being healthy and strong was not valued for women, but being chosen to be a drum majorette because of what we looked like was. Today's cheerleaders are, in fact, athletes, but back then, it was believed that girls had to keep from getting too excited. Actually, when I was a teenager I was somewhat heftier than I am now and a bit of a tomboy, and never seriously had the option of appearing waiflike. I could hold my own in touch football. I even captained the basketball team in Donora Junior High. But, we were not allowed to run cross the entire court, lest we wear ourselves out from overexertion. Encouraged by one doctor who thought my face would be better noticed if my body were slimmed down, I once fasted for two weeks on only on water and diet pills -- given out like candy when they were first invented. I did not at all like what the pills did to my brain, so like millions of women of my generation I rapidly ballooned right back up. Others stuck with those pills and have the bodies and brains to show for it.

  • Natural Obsessions by Natalie Angier. Angier takes the most complicated concepts of molecular carcinogenesis and lays them out neat and clear. This book made something shockingly apparent to me. Many of the warriors in the heavily funded, highly touted war on cancer did not, as James Watson once remarked, "give a shit about cancer." The scientists who laid the intellectual groundwork for understanding cancer and genes were, like scientists in many fields, merely fascinated with exploring, understanding, studying, measuring, coming up with ever finer ways of testing all the marvelous things that turn cells from their normal job of keeping us alive and well, into monstrous, lethal destructive agents within our own bodies. Science is inherently uncertain, and those who become scientists, as I did, generally love to argue. We keep looking at a problem from different vantage points. We are never certain, never finished, whether understanding Newtonian motion or Einsteinian spacetime. Sometimes, what we think we know turns out to be spectacularly wrong, as when the early war on cancer believed that all cancer was due to malevolent viruses that sneaked into cells, slipping off their RNA and wrecking havoc. Clinical medicine is a special case because doctors are trained to look at individual patients and tissues, one at a time. The effort to bring science into the study of medicine remains problematic. Look at the recent debacle of hormone replacement therapy, where millions of women my age are now going through quite unpleasant side effects, as they stop taking what had once been routinely recommended, and are left without clear signals about what to do about it.

    When Angier's book came out, I was steeped in biochemistry, immunology and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University, and I remember being shocked that anyone could speak of such matters so clearly. I guess I secretly thought then that maybe one day I would try to do so. My interests in how we know what we say we know are unending. I once spent an entire year studying the philosophy of physics, specifically the "reality" of elementary particles, at the University of Chicago, where I completed my Ph.D. thanks to the good graces of a Danforth Foundation Graduate Fellowship. The class of "fellows" to which I belonged was one of the first to include women, and we were told clearly that it was up to us to show whether we could perform up to standards.

    Chicago was like an intellectual candy store. I took classes in disciplines ranging from experimental and methodological issues to a number of inspiring ones in the Divinity School. Chicago provided a tremendously exciting venue, where teaching was vibrant, though women professors were nearly nonexistent. There was no escaping the moral debates about the war in Viet Nam. Living in Hyde Park on the South Side, there was also no escaping a profound recognition that our country had taken segregation out of laws but had not taken it out of our cities. The day Martin Luther King was assassinated, I was out walking through burning neighborhoods and got a haircut in a black beauty parlor, then as now a major institution in that community. With Beverly Jackson, a single mother of two, and Stan Lubarski, a lapsing Jesuit priest, I shortly afterwards ended up briefly at Virginia Union University, an historically black college, in a young and enthusiastic effort to somehow atone for the sins of the fathers.

    In my doctoral research at Chicago, I continued to try to understand how fundamentally different epistemic communities conferred meaning on their realities of religion and those of science. My Ph.D. thesis, in the Committee on the History of Culture, contrasted these two domains with which I have been fascinated since I can remember thinking. I actually became a scientist -- toxicologist and epidemiologist -- via three different post-doctoral stints.

  • Eichman in Jerusalem: On the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt. This essay revealed that Eichmann, who had masterminded the killing of millions, was not some bizarre monster but an ordinary man, and that those who committed the evils of the Holocaust were not exceptional fiends, but rather were just going about what had become their business. I began to wonder what had really gone on. When I was young, newly arrived displaced persons would regularly be welcomed into our small Jewish community, and nobody ever talked about where they came from and why. The secret stories of those who bore blue numbers on their arms, a bit darker than the ink used to stamp USDA approval on meat at the butchers, remained untold. Arendt revealed how banal the entire base of the system had been.

  • Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a transporting book that stretched my feelings about life, death and sex. It provides a rich, exotic and titillating story of how the most base of human emotions can bring the greatest joy and cause the greatest pain. It weaves an entrancing tale of repeated seductions and abandonments that also challenges what we all take for granted. In Kundera's story, love and sex comprise quite different needs and wants in a deeply unsettling way for the couple around whom the story is built. Set in the background of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the book describes, with brutal and exquisite passion, the contradictory and complex feelings of a twosome that repeatedly and brazenly explores the outer limits of what a relationship can be.

    "What if Tereza knew what happens during the moment love is born: the woman cannot resist the voice calling forth her terrified soul; the man cannot resist the woman whose soul thus responds to his voice.

    She fixed him with a long, careful, searching stare that was not devoid of irony's intelligent sparkle.

    "The very beginning of Genesis tells us that God created man in order to give him dominion over fish and fowl and all creatures. Of course, Genesis was written by a man, not a horse. But let a third party enter the game -- a visitor from another planet, for example, someone to whom God says, "Thou shalt have dominion over creatures of all other stars" -- and all at once taking Genesis for granted becomes problematical."

  • Eleven Blue Men by Burton Roueche. This is a classic series of essays by the New Yorker's superb medical writer from the 1950s and 1960s, which I mention in the preface to When Smoke Ran Like Water. The title stems from an event that took place in September of 1944. A policeman in the Bowery found a ragged eighty-two year old man retching and collapsed on the sidewalk on Dey Street, near the Hudson Terminal in New York City. As soon as he looked at the fellow, the cop realized this was not just a sick old drunk. The old man was sky blue. By the end of the day, a total of eleven thin, unmarried, under-employed men had showed up at the same clinic in the Bowery in lower Manhattan, complaining of coughs, chest pains, and fatigue. All of them were blue.

    If all these men had all been tired and full of flu, but with normal skin tone, no one would have thought to connect their problems. Only their exceptional color made the local doctors ask what was going on. Normal skin is rosy because it contains iron in the form of hemoglobin. Blood that is saturated with oxygen is bright red. Blood that has lost its oxygen is dark bluish-red. Carbon monoxide and other compounds, like those containing cyanide or nitrogen, can block iron from entering hemoglobin and deplete blood of oxygen. People who lack oxygen in their blood tend to look blue.

    In New York, The health department officials learned that every one of these blue men had become sick within a half-hour of eating at a local diner. Ten of them had had oatmeal, rolls and coffee; one had eaten just oatmeal. Attention turned to what on earth was in that oatmeal. One of the saltshakers used in preparing the cereal, it turned out, had been mistakenly filled with white crystals that looked just like sodium chloride but were actually sodium nitrite. Sodium nitrite tastes salty because it contains sodium, just as salt does, but it also contains nitrites, consisting of nitrogen bound to oxygen. Nitrites can wreak havoc in the blood. When bound to nitrite, hemoglobin cannot absorb iron and takes on an abnormal blue color, a condition called methemoglobinemia. Once this puzzle was solved, both the saltshaker and the men returned to normal.

    The story of the eleven blue men provides a spectacular example of what the work of epidemiology -- the word comes from the Greek epi, upon, and demos, people -- is largely about. Epidemiologists look for common connections of patterns of illness among groups of people. That work is easiest when exposures are knowable or controlled, and take place over relatively short periods. Thus the challenge of the blue men was straightforward. They got sick quickly. They did not die. Therefore, they could be asked about what had happened to them in the days before they became ill. In fact about 125 people ate the same oatmeal, but only these eleven turned blue and sick. The blue guys all happened to be heavy drinkers and had added extra salt to their cereal, in an effort to make up for the sodium deficit common to alcoholics.

  • Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker. This book showed me that it is possible to write powerfully and beautifully about something truly awful -- female genital mutilation. Walker creates transporting stories and fascinatingly complex characters that demand reading. This work spans the world, and captures the lingo, lives and times of quite different disaffected communities. The writing is so powerful and the stories so engrossing that the reader gets drawn into the sickening dilemmas of a woman who undergoes this barbaric procedure. The book teaches without preaching and creates powerful insight into cultures and practices that continue to keep young African and Arab women in grim positions. The lyrical writing style is without parallel. Walker does something almost no other writer can. There are those who document the grim tolls of tragedies, and others who spin marvelously exciting tales of adventure and mystery. She does both in a way that is brave and smart. She showed me that with a powerful narrative, simple and beautiful words can be used to explain horrifying practices, keeping the reader enthralled and educated.

  • Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. I like to laugh. So I like reading Heller. How can anyone not be amused with the contradictory, madness-inducing world that he created in this parody of World War Two camp of U.S. aviators and bombardiers based in undecipherable Italy? "In order to be grounded, I've got to be crazy and I must be crazy to keep flying. But if I ask to be grounded, that means I'm not crazy any more and I have to keep flying."

    All of us have faced different sorts of Catch 22, with varying degrees of humor. In my own lifework, at several points when I have previously considered stepping outside science into writing for the general public, I have been told by some whom I respect greatly, "Serious scientists do not write for the public. That is for journalists." The message has been a Catch 22. If you do write a book on science for the public, don't make it too understandable, else you will no longer be a member of the tribe of serious scientists. We'll see.

    I remember as an honors undergraduate at Pitt being in a graduate seminar in anthropological theory, with George Peter Murdock, then at Pitt, formerly the master of the field at Yale. He railed on about how Margaret Mead was not a serious researcher because she wrote for "women's magazines!" Immediately I was drawn to Mead's work and learned that she had published even more technical articles in anthropology than Murdock at the time. What steamed her mostly male colleagues was that she insisted on telling the public what her studies on sex and violence in more primitive cultures meant for ordinary people. And she did this pretty graphically and candidly at a time when polite people did not cotton much to such matters being talked about in public. I actually constructed a graph of the happy Meadian, where I showed that once her annual rate of popular articles exceed that of her scientific articles, her standing within science fell, as her popularity in the general public rose.

    Favorite films?

    • Forget Paris
    • Les Infants Du Paradis
    • Great White Hope
    • Rashimon
    • Knife in the Water
    • Soylent Green
    • Tootsie
    • Punch Me in the Stomach
    • Philadelphia
    • Dead Man Walking
    • The War of the Roses
    • Shakespeare in Love
    • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
    • Some Like it Hot
    • A Thousand Clowns
    • Thelma & Louise

    Favorite music?

    • Bach, Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello
    • Brahms, Cello Sonata in A
    • Bruch, Kol Nidre
    • Beethoven, Opus 111
    • Stravinsky, Les Rites des Printemps
    • A cappella religious music of all sorts, Hebrew, Gregorian and Buddhists chants
    • Betty
    • The Rolling Stones
    • James Taylor
    • Phil Lehrer
    • Odetta
    • Jefferson Airplane
    • Opera: Salome; Madame Butterfly

    If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
    David McCullough's John Adams, because it is tells the story of an unsung and inspiring American political figure, captures marvelously textured history and exposes the human frailties, piercing self-understanding and magnificent relationship of John and Abigail Adams. It deserves to be talked about carefully and slowly.

    Who are your favorite writers, and what makes their writing special?

  • Natalie Angier. She writes like a dream, with an irreverent sense of humor that I adore.

  • Umberto Eco tells ever-so-complicated tales, rich with history, hypocrisy, science, and subtleties.

  • Robert K. Merton forged the tools of analytic social science in an accessible manner and laid the foundations for understanding that science remains a profoundly social institution, exposing the all too human side of controversies in science.

  • Paul Brodeur set the standard for probing analyses of public health issues in a coherent, humane and commanding manner.

  • Barbara Seaman started a revolution on women's health by questioning what was taken for granted and meticulously exposing how little had been established about the safety of many common drugs and practices.

  • Cynthia Ozick offers brilliant insights into the human condition through probing research into some of the dark moments of human history and captivating renderings.

    A number of accomplished environmental journalists have set the mold for penetrating analyses, and while I do not always agree with them, I always find their writing top notch: Phil Shabekoff, Keith Schneider, Gregg Easterbrook, Dan Fagin and Marianne Lavelle, Rick Weiss, Joby Warrick, and Don Hopey.

    What are you working on now?

    • The Secret History of the War on Cancer
    • Oral History of Donora and Environs
    • Recipes for Living Better and Longer
    • Private Poems

    What else do you want your readers to know?
    Yoga and a number of other forms of physical activity keep me centered on the earth, as does my family and good friends. Skiing and hiking keep me nearer to G-d. Study of Torah and attending Havera when I can and studying other ancient texts reminds me why I am here.

    I am blessed with many friends who are struggling with serious health issues. This keeps us all focused on the present. One motto: There is no present, like the time.

    I wish I could speak Chinese.


    In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Devra Davis had to say:

  • Doris Lessing, The Grandmothers -- The latest collection of four classic Lessing stories runs the gamut from lazy summer days and urban racial dilemmas to cutting-edge science fiction. The tales expose the complexities behind the lives of ordinary characters. Sparse to an extreme, with language that sometimes stretches well beyond the usual meanings, Lessing escapes from the everyday world by capturing details of life that others can seldom imagine.

  • Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex -- A fantastic rendering of the mythical experiences of a true hermaphrodite, I agree with Jonathan Franzen: "Middlesex is a weird, wonderful novel that will sweep you off your feet."

  • Sean Michael Flynn, Land of the Radioactive Midnight Sun -- A terrific read! Flynn combines an eye for detail with the grand picture, in this warm, witty and wise-ass account of Alaskan military life. If you have always hankered to visit Alaska, you must read this book. Even if you have not, you will become intrigued by the humor and grace with which this public affairs military officer relays the stories of life in America's, coldest and most remote state. Captures the tedium and the drama of military life spent waiting for things that everyone hopes never happen. One prays that the talented author of this book -- a Company Commander headed for Iraq -- returns safely with thousands of others now serving this country so that he can regale us with his next set of penetrating reflections.

  • Michael Bowker, Fatal Deception: How Big Business is Still Killing Us with Asbestos and Andrew Schneider and David McCumber, An Air that Kills: How the Asbestos Poisoning of Libby, Montana Uncovered a National Scandal

    These two books provide chilling accounts of how years of willful neglect resulted in one of the worst environmental tragedies in modern times -- the poisoning of the town of Libby, Montana. A parable for the developing world, through simple stories of the men and women who worked the asbestos plants and mines, they chart the tragic human price paid by those who went to work everyday, never imagining that the dust on their clothing would shorten their lives and that of their families.

  • Frank Ackerman and Lisa Heinzerling, Priceless: On Knowing the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing -- This is a vividly written book, punctuated by striking analogies, a good deal of outrage, and a nice dose of humor. The authors raise several good questions about cost-benefit analysis. Certainly regulators should care not only about reduced fatalities, but also about the health gains produced by regulation. They should take account of all the potential benefits, such as protection of ecosystems and animals, including members of endangered species. It is quite crude to say that every life is "worth" $6.1 million; some kinds of risk, and some kinds of death, produce heightened concern. (Cancer risks seem to create more alarm than risks of a sudden, unanticipated death.) Even if studies show that American workers are paid $60 to assume a risk of one in 100,000, it does not necessarily follow that environmental policy should require companies to spend no more than $60 to reduce similar risks associated with air and water pollution. Distributional issues matter. If poor people are hit especially hard by environmental risks, something has gone wrong." (From a review by Cass Sunstein in The New Republic).

  • John C. Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies, Damned Lies and the Public Relations Industry -- Even for those who think they have seen it all, this book contains shocking revelations about why we know so little about corporations behaving badly over the years. Stauber and Rampton tell the stories of the art of the hustle and show how public relations gurus have shaped campaigns to convince many states that toxic sludge is good for you and should properly be called biosolids. They reveal that the ACLU took money from the tobacco lobby and toyed with the notion that smoking was a civil right, that both Democrats and Republicans have stretched their views considerably depending on who pays, and that there are many more PR operatives out there now than independent journalists.

  • Sheldon Krimsky, Science in the Private Interest: Has the Lure of Profits Corrupted Biomedical Research? -- Krimsky paints a vivid picture of the extent to which scientific independence is compromised, as private and public universities wage tough campaigns to balance the need for scientific independence against the growing strengths of corporate biomedical research interests. The need for renewing science in the public interest rings through loud and clear.

  • Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, Women Don't Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide -- Want to know why men get further ahead? They ask for what they want twice as often as women and start to negotiate four times more. When Linda Babcock asked why so many male graduate students were teaching their own courses and most female students were assigned as assistants, her dean said: "More men ask. The women just don't ask." Whether they want higher salaries or more help at home, women often find it hard to ask. Sometimes they don't know that change is possible. Sometimes they fear that asking may create a bad impression. And sometimes they don't ask because they've learned that society can react badly to uppity women asserting their own needs and desires.

  • Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran, Power to the People: How the Coming Energy Revolution Will Transform an Industry, Change Our Lives, and Maybe Even Save the Planet -- A well-written account of how we can save the world, if we institute rationality into decisions about energy. Documents all the cultural, political and economic barriers that are being created against the establishment of a more rational energy system. Charming, clear, and compelling. Should be read by anyone concerned with the health of the planet.

  • Bruce Feiler, Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses --Brilliant, probing, informative, archeological and geological romp through the holy lands of so many civilizations and cultures. Explains the adventurous crucible from which so much modern strife arises, and shows the capacity of the bible to be continually reinvented.

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