Piller, Charles 1955–

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PILLER, Charles 1955–

PERSONAL: Born January 9, 1955, in Chicago, IL; son of Jack (a teacher) and Alice (a medical technologist; maiden name, Shakow) Piller; married Surry Bunnell (a registered nurse), August 26, 1984; children: Nathan. Education: Lone Mountain College, B.A., 1977. Religion: Jewish.

ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Basic Books, 387 Park Ave. South, Twelfth Floor, New York, NY 10016. E-mail[email protected].

CAREER: Journalist and author. Carquinez Coalition, Contra Costa County, CA, executive director, 1980–81; Institute of Industrial Relations, University of California, Berkeley, senior writer, 1981–82; University of California Medical Center, San Francisco, writer and editor for Synapse (news weekly), 1982–; Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, CA, staff writer. U.S. Senate, consultant to Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, 1987–; MacWorld, associate editor; affiliated with Bay Area Committee on Occupational Safety and Health.

MEMBER: National Writers Union, Northern California Science Writers Association, Media Alliance.


Labor Educator's Health and Safety Manual, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1982.

(With Keith R. Yamamoto) Gene Wars: Military Control over the New Genetic Technologies, Beech Tree Books (New York, NY), 1988.

The Fail-Safe Society: Community Defiance and the End of American Technological Optimism, Basic-Books (New York, NY), 1991.

Contributor to periodicals, including Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Baltimore Sun, Cleveland Plain Dealer, San Jose Mercury News, Oakland Tribune, Toronto Globe and Mail, Nation, Medical Self Care, Redbook, PC World, San Francisco Focus, and Chicago Tribune.

SIDELIGHTS: Charles Piller, a journalist who has written extensively about technology and computer science, is also the author of a number of books. Among these is Gene Wars: Military Control over the New Genetic Technologies, which Piller wrote with molecular biologist Keith R. Yamamoto. Piller and Yamamoto present possible scenarios in which biological and chemical weapons could be employed by the military, then provide a look at historical instances where such means were used. They note that the U.S. Army began to investigate the use of biological warfare (BW) at Fort Detrick, Maryland, during World War II; diseases that were studied included plague, yellow fever, typhus, and botulism. This work was advanced with data that had been accumulated by the Japanese, who had used thousands of prisoners as guinea pigs during the war. During the 1950s and 1960s, U.S. Army scientists conducted animal experiments and secret open-air testing in its Utah proving grounds. The authors draw on documents, which, by law, must be unclassified, but which are very vague in their descriptions and difficult to obtain. They "provide a devastating analysis of the military's use of deception and secrecy to avoid governmental control," noted Clifton E. Wilson in Library Journal.

In 1925 the United States and one hundred other nations signed the Geneva Protocol, which prohibited the use of poison gas and bacteriological weapons. Also signed was the 1972 Biological Warfare Convention, which prohibits the development, production, or stockpiling of microbial or other biological toxins or agents. The authors write that the United States and other countries continue their research, defending their right do to so because, they say, they must be able to defend themselves from such attacks. The authors feel that research must be limited and that all information regarding defense against such threats should be made public. "Biologists do not yet have the strong link to weapons research that physicists and engineers have," noted Warren E. Leary in the New York Times Book Review, "and it is early enough to prevent such an attachment from forming."

The authors concede that responsible governments must defend themselves and develop the means to do so. However, according to Leary, the authors argue that the Pentagon, "with hundreds of millions of dollars to award in biological research contracts and a history of secrecy … cannot be trusted to protect the public's interest. Biologists must assume some of this responsibility by deciding against working on war projects." In addition, a Kirkus Reviews contributor wrote that Piller and Yamamoto show that the Pentagon "is actively meddling in certain aspects of biological research."

Gene Wars also addresses how the DNA of a plant or animal can be manipulated, which brings into question the possibility of altering food crops or developing deadlier viruses. Daniel Kevles, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, concluded by saying that "the value of Gene Wars lies in the chilling report it provides of the U.S. BW program and in the alarm it raises against permitting the arms race to expand into a new and insidious arena."

The Fail-Safe Society: Community Defiance and the End of American Technological Optimism was called a "thoughtful middle alternative to sometimes reactionary activism and technocracy" by a Publishers Weekly writer. The book is Piller's study of the growing number of Americans who oppose scientific projects and experiments close to where they live. While Americans supported such scientific pursuits in the 1950s, the ensuing environmental disasters and threats, beginning with Love Canal, led to the founding of the syndrome known as "Not in My Backyard," NIMBY. Piller studies a number of cases, including one involving the Department of Energy's Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant near Denver, Colorado. The plant employed a large number of residents, but in the mid-1980s the site was found to be contaminated and the area groundwater to contain plutonium, and it was closed in 1989. Another NIMBY three-year battle was fought and lost in Monterey County, California, when a local group protested the testing of a genetically engineered bacteria as a form of frost control for crops.

Because of NIMBY activism, the building of waste dumps, factories, and research laboratories has more recently slowed to a crawl. Piller defines the two types of NIMBY protestors: those who are focused on a single project in their community, and outside environmentalists who come in to support local protestors. Piller's solution entails raising environmental standards and involving the communities themselves. "Piller may not have all the answers," wrote Peter Aldhous in Nature, "but his book is a thought-provoking starting point for an important and necessary debate."



Booklist, March 15, 1988, review of Gene Wars: Military Control over the New Genetic Technologies, p. 1208.

Choice, September, 1988, E. Lewis, review of Gene Wars, p. 211.

Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 1988, review of Gene Wars, p. 266; July 15, 1991, review of The Fail-Safe Society: Community Defiance and the End of American Technological Optimism, p. 914.

Library Journal, July, 1988, Clifton E. Wilson, review of Gene Wars, p. 84; September 15, 1991, Christopher R. Jocius, review of The Fail-Safe Society, p. 108.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 8, 1988, Daniel Kevles, review of Gene Wars, p. 2.

Nature, January 9, 1992, Peter Aldhous, review of The Fail-Safe Society, p. 124.

New York Times Book Review, March 27, 1988, Warren E. Leary, review of Gene Wars, p. 44.

Publishers Weekly, February 12, 1988, review of Gene Wars, p. 78; July 5, 1991, review of The Fail-Safe Society, p. 54.

Technology Review, July, 1992, Phil Brown, review of The Fail-Safe Society, pp. 68-70.