Book Review – The Violinist’s Thumb

If Nicollo Paganini, the titular musician of Sam Kean‘s “The Violinist’s Thumb,” had lived in the 1960s rather than the 1800s, the book may well have been named “Sex, Drugs, and Rock n’ Roll.” According to period reports, the 19th century virtuoso was a dervish of womanizing, opium abuse, and brilliant concerts, haunted by recurring health problems that ended his career well before old age. This combination was often attributed at the time to Paganini’s purported pact with the devil, but if he had lived even closer to the present, it may have been attributed to a more scientific cause. Modern doctors have retroactively conjectured that the violinist suffered from Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder of the body’s connective tissue that would have given Paganini both his legendary flexibility and infamous ill health.

“The Violinist’s Thumb” by Sam Kean. Courtesy of Amazon.

Kean recognizes the timeless interest of Paganini’s story and makes it a key example of the book’s major theme: DNA influences our bodies, brains, and behavior in powerful and unexpected ways. From the implications of Neanderthal interbreeding for human immunity to the role of parasite genes in the addictions of animal hoarders, the author casts a wide net over the weird world of genetics. Equally comfortable with the scientific and human sides of his subjects, Kean’s writing is packed with juicily evocative (and humorous) details that illuminate larger biological concepts.

This penchant for anecdotes makes “The Violinist’s Thumb” often read like a collection of short biographies, very accessible and a bit eclectic. In perhaps the book’s best chapter, Kean weaves the personal lives of Thomas Hunt Morgan and three of his lab assistants around a solid primer on the discovery of chromosomal behavior. The details of Morgan’s relationships with his assistants (such as the time he bailed Calvin Bridges out of a sticky situation with a confidence woman) are fascinating in their own right, but Kean ensures that they also illustrate the progress of scientific discovery; in this case, Morgan’s American familiarity with his underlings meant he was more willing to listen to their good ideas than were many European investigators.

Although each individual story is told with great aplomb, Kean’s scattershot approach does leave the book feeling somewhat weak in terms of overall structure. At times, “The Violinist’s Thumb” can feel like a popular science textbook, covering a wide range of topics in genetics without fully uniting them in the overarching narrative of DNA’s human impacts. But more often than not, the engaging nature of the examples led me to forgive the author for his strong focus on particulars.

The book’s witty style makes it a quick and enjoyable read, stuffed with specifics that impress the reader and beg to be shared among friends. The science is solid throughout, but Kean’s discussions of its personal implications are what truly stand out. As the author concludes in his last chapter, “the most profound changes that genetic science brings about likely won’t be instant diagnoses or medicinal panaceas but mental and spiritual enrichment—a more expansive sense of who we humans are, existentially, and how we fit with other life on earth.”



Book Review – Death by Black Hole

Death by Black Hole” is surely an imposing title, one that evokes feelings of inevitable cosmic dread. But Neil deGrasse Tyson, the affable astrophysicist and host of the recent “Cosmos” reboot, assures the readers of his essay collection that they have nothing to fear from the gravity-generating giants. Instead, he invites his audience on a fascinating survey of astronomical and general scientific topics, one whose short chapters and breezy style make for quick and engaging reading.

“Death by Black Hole” by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Courtesy of Amazon.

After struggling with the general brashness of Richard Dawkins (as mentioned in last week’s review), I found Tyson’s style to be welcoming and accessible. He makes excellent use of the essay format, limiting the scope of each chapter to a topic that can be discussed briefly but thoroughly. Tyson does not shy away from or gloss over the complex concepts that arise in his work as an astrophysicist, such as the application of spectroscopy to determine facts about cosmic objects. In that case, he skillfully contrasts numerous concrete examples of the information that can be determined from simple color photographs and broader spectra to show how important the technique is to our understanding of the universe.

As the book is assembled from a collection of essays Tyson wrote for the “Universe” column of Natural History magazine, the text does repeat some examples and covers similar territory in several chapters. But the author has generally done a good job at exploring a wide range of material, helped by broad but useful section groupings such as “When the Universe Turns Bad” and “Science and Culture.” The latter section is especially enjoyable, making perhaps the best use of Tyson’s dry and self-deprecating humor. In a section where he explains the errors in the stars of the night sky in James Cameron’s “Titanic,” he recounts a dinner conversation he had with the director. “What better occasion to tell him of his errant ways with the Titanic sky. So after I whined for ten minutes on the subject, he replied, ‘The film, worldwide, has grossed over a billion dollars. Imagine how much more money it would have made had I gotten the night sky correct!'”

Both astronomical novices and seasoned space fans can find something to enjoy in “Death by Black Hole.” It’s an entertaining and accessible read, and with each short chapter taking ten minutes or so to read, the book lends itself to quick jaunts into the wonders of the cosmos, each with its own mind-expanding rewards.



Book Review – The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution

If I’ve been posting a lot of book reviews lately, it’s due to the long, lazy days of summer and the fortuitous proximity of the Campbell County Public Library. But I’ve been trying to keep my reading list on the somewhat enlightening side, and to that end, I recently picked up “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution” by famed (and infamous) biologist Richard Dawkins. Evolution is far from new territory for Dawkins and his books, but as he explains, in none of his previous works has he attempted to provide a comprehensive overview of the support behind the central tenet of biological science.

“The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution” by Richard Dawkins. Courtesy of Amazon.

And in this respect, Dawkins largely succeeds. Starting much like Darwin and “On the Origin of Species” in his reliance on artificial selection in domesticated plants and animals, the author segues through selection by nonhuman animals (such as that of insects for floral nectar production) before explaining the impersonal forces of natural selection proper. He addresses geological dating in a particularly lucid overview of the different radioactive “clocks,” gives examples of rapid evolution, and challenges the fallacy of the “missing link.” Perhaps the best chapter in the book uses embryogenesis to demonstrate how change on the smallest biological level can propagate upward, causing drastic alterations in an organism’s form upon which natural selection can operate.

When Dawkins becomes engrossed in the details of a scientific concept, as in a pages-long description of the Lenski Long-term Evolution Experiment, his writing is powerful and convincing. Yet he seems not to recognize this strength, and it is here that the book begins to falter. Too often he chooses to gloss over the finer points of a given example, waving away the complexities with a dismissive and superior tone. “For reasons that need not concern us here” and “I won’t pursue the matter further” are common phrases throughout; in other places, he chooses to make amusing digressions or employ footnotes instead of continuing the thrust of the argument in the main text. One gets the sense that his celebrity as one of the “Four Horsemen” of New Atheism caused the editors of the book to take a lighter hand, and the work suffers for it.

Perhaps most importantly, Dawkins takes an openly combative stance towards those whom the book purports to reach: advocates of creationism and intelligent design, whom he designates as “history deniers.” For example, he devotes an embarrassingly large amount of space to a transcript of an interview he conducted with a creationist over fossils of humanity’s ancestors, taking a perverse glee in the inability of his subject to look at the evidence as it stood. But the book itself is about that evidence, and presumably about giving those not yet convinced of the beauty and truth of evolution another perspective. A calmer, friendlier tone may not attract the media coverage Dawkins seems to crave, but it might go a long way toward winning over the other side.

Book Review – Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

America’s burgeoning “foodie” movement owes much to Michael Pollan. The author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” opened the eyes of many readers to the issues surrounding modern agricultural production, from out-of-touch government subsidies of corn growers to the disconnect between the expectations and realities of industrialized organic produce. In his 2013 book “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation,” Pollan shifts his focus from the farm to the table, providing an elegantly written primer into the art and science of turning food into meals.

“Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” by Michael Pollan. Courtesy of

The book’s subtitle of “natural history” is well chosen, as Pollan’s approach to the science of his subject is more akin to that of a Victorian museum than a modern, specialized laboratory. He chooses to divide the world of cookery into four thematic sections mirroring the classical elements: fire, water, air, and earth. In each part, the author delves firsthand into a fundamental food preparation technique, telling the narrative of his own experience as he riffs on the chemical and cultural significance of the process. The style is highly observational, but in the best way, expansive and richly detailed.

Pollan begins with the most “primitive” of cooking styles, that of meat over flame, by diving into the world of Southern whole-hog barbecue. The technique takes on quasi-religious significance for its practitioners, and the author riffs brilliantly on the similarities between ancient burnt offerings and modern masters of the fire pit. After the pyrotechnics of this section, he moves into the kitchen, ostensibly discussing the many pot dishes made by braising in water. But it is from this humble beginning that Pollan establishes the main message of the book: cooking for oneself and one’s family and friends is among the most physically and psychologically healthful of activities.

He continues to expand on this point as he moves through the more esoteric techniques of baking and fermentation, representing air and earth in turn. As he explains, learning to make “advanced” products like bread and beer provides an irreplaceable sense of self-reliance, as well as a greater appreciation in consumption. The common thread of patience ties all four parts together: cooking, whether the slow burn of a barbeque pit or the months-long curing of cheese, cannot be rushed, and in this way stands in opposition to the breakneck pace of modernity.

In “Cooked,” Pollan has written an endlessly engaging and thoughtful treatise on why cooking matters. Like the products it describes, the book is a feast for the senses and the mind, an inspiration to cook further. The author offers a handful of recipes in an appendix just for that purpose, and a reader can’t be blamed for heading straight to the kitchen.

Book Review – Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

America’s astronauts are hailed as fearless explorers of the void, boldly going into the unknown and taking giant leaps for mankind. Their spacecraft, from the mighty Saturn V that launched the Apollo moon missions to the workhorse Space Shuttles, are recognized as cutting-edge conveyances drawing from the latest in science and technology. And both these men and their machines, writes Mary Roach, can be undone by something as simple as a clogged toilet.

Packing for Mars, courtesy of Mary Roach

In her 2010 book “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void,” Roach takes a gleefully irreverent look at the human element of spaceflight and just how unglamorous that element can be. From space psychology to motion sickness to the aforementioned toilet troubles, she examines the myriad difficulties that face travelers evolved under Earth’s gravity when adrift in space. Her style, a uniquely entertaining blend of brilliant humor and scientific rigor, is well suited to explaining the importance of the issues while never losing sight of their essential absurdity.

At her best, Roach seamlessly integrates quotable moments from an endless selection of astronauts and NASA scientists into her riotous narrative. In referencing early Soviet experiments on restricted hygiene (an important factor on a spacecraft with limited water supplies), she at first quotes a dry phrase from the scientific report: subjects spent “most of their time sitting in an armchair.” And then she paints an absurd but accurate picture: “The simulated astronaut of the sixties was a stinky guy watching TV in a dirty undershirt.”

The book has an excellent sense of flow for a popular scientific work, each chapter lasting just as long as necessary and transitioning into each other with pithy one-liners. For example, when moving from a section on earthbound isolation experiments to one on the study of psychology in orbit, she matter-of-factly claims that “[to] find out what would happen to a man alone in the cosmos, at some point you just had to lob one up there.” Roach’s masterly use of footnotes also allows her to keep the breezy tone of the text while incorporating juicy details for the enterprising reader.

Perhaps most importantly, Roach humanizes the explorers and researchers of the space program, giving them the flaws and quirks of everyday people. A choice selection from the Apollo 10 mission transcript, where the astronauts each deny personal responsibility for an “escaped” bit of waste, reads more like a group of college kids debating “who smelt it, dealt it” than a cadre of expert pilots. “Mine was a little more sticky than that,” in the words of Mission Commander Thomas Stafford.

Although the closing of the book, where Roach expresses the ability of spaceflight (despite its foibles) to inspire wonder, feels a bit perfunctory, “Packing for Mars” remains an enlightening and entertaining read. Her work offers a unique look at, well, the crap that goes on behind the scenes as mankind shoots for the stars.

Book Review – Polystate: A Thought Experiment in Distributed Government

American elections in 2007 and 2008 were plagued by issues with the voting machines manufactured by Premier Election Solutions, formerly a subsidiary of the U.S. ATM manufacturer Diebold. Because of concerns ranging from hacker access to dropped votes, citizens were uncertain if their preferences for representatives had been properly recorded. Imagine, then, the panic that would have ensued if the voting had been not just for congressmen and city officials, but for entire methods of political rule.

Polystate: A Thought Experiment in Distributed Government. Courtesy of Amazon.

This type of world, in which each citizen would be free to choose his or her own governmental system, is the subject of a new book by Zach Weinersmith titled “Polystate: A Thought Experiment in Distributed Government.” Weinersmith, best known as the creative behind the popular webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, is fascinated by the continual explosion of choice and customizability in human life as facilitated by technology. As 3-D printing enables custom-printed houses and online dating services let people easily sort through thousands of potential mates,  he wonders how government will respond to the tendency toward personalized life experience.

“Polystate” represents Weinersmith’s attempt to work out one possible solution to this question. His hypothetical society consists of a collection of “anthrostates,” governments that proscribe laws and support institutions but have no geographical boundaries. Each citizen of a polystate would choose allegiance to an anthrostate, agreeing to be bound by its regulations and gaining the advantages of its services. Citizens of multiple anthrostates would coexist in the same region, with next-door neighbors possibly choosing to live under completely different systems. One family, for example, might pledge its loyalty to a collectivist society where taxes are distributed equally, while another on the same block might join a theocracy where tithes go to the building of churches and the attendance of religious services is mandatory.

Importantly, citizens would be able to change anthrostate on a regular basis, allowing them to experiment with different types of governance. He contrasts this situation to that of the current geopolitical climate, where people are born into “geostates” (traditional nations such as Mexico and Canada) and can only change their government with great difficulty, if at all. This sort of “permanent revolution,” the author contends, would swiftly remove support from unjust rulers and help eliminate corrupt systems. As he writes regarding the growth of North Korea, “It is hard to imagine that he [Kim Jong-un] would have this larger population if any of his citizens could have freely switched to any other government.”

Weinersmith argues that advances in technology would remove many of the obstacles associated with this sort of society. Digital currency and computerized money markets, for example, could alleviate the headaches caused by the unique financial systems of coexisting anthrostates, while improved artificial intelligence could help arbitrators navigate conflicting legal codes in now-common “international incidents.” Numerous benefits, such as the difficulty of waging war between nations with distributed populations, would also arise organically from the system. Yet the author does not shy from offering a realistic view of the problems facing a polystate, from international trade to the possibilities of tax evasion and cheating.

Although the author’s discussions of inter-anthrostate relations and personal choice in a polystate society are thoroughly fleshed out, the book leaves a number of vital issues unresolved. Weinersmith separates most of these “potentially insoluble objections to a polystate” into the short third section of the book, but they are (perhaps inevitably) some of the most interesting points raised. How might a polystate deal with contested ownership of sacred locations? How could anthrostates maintain continuing projects such as social security with continually fluctuating populations and demographics? And, most importantly, how would this society become established in the first place? A short story from the perspective of a polystate citizen (an idea briefly considered in a footnote) could have done much to bring the theorizing of the book to life, as well as grounded the work in the larger tradition of books such as B. F. Skinner’s “Walden Two” and Thomas More’s “Utopia.”

Still, “Polystate” provides a thought-provoking hypothesis of how the future of government may develop. As Weinersmith writes in the introduction, his work of “poli sci fi” is meant to encourage reflection on future possibilities, giving readers the chance to consider the implications of current trends. His “educated speculation” is well worth the time and is sure to spark discussion amongst thoughtful readers.

Book Review – Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom

Few symbols are more indicative of the modern Christmas season than a jolly Santa Claus, clad in red and white furs, ascending up a chimney with a finger to his nose. But where did that imagery come from? Was it the vivid imagination of Clement Clark Moore, author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas”? Or, as recounted by Andy Letcher in his book “Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom,” was it a distorted folk memory of Siberian shamanism? After all, the hallucinogenic fly-agaric mushroom shares the red and white coloring of St. Nick, shamans were said to climb out the smoke-holes of their yurts while entranced, and reindeer that had eaten the mushroom were occasionally killed and eaten for a secondhand intoxication.

“Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom.” Courtesy of Goodreads.

The theory of a bemushroomed Santa is most likely false; the idea was first tossed out in modern times and taken up by enthusiastic members of the counterculture. But the truth behind the history of magic mushrooms is just as interesting as the wildest fiction. Letcher uses countless anecdotes like the Santa tale to illustrate that the current view of hallucinogenic fungi as (mostly) harmless “trippy” or “spiritual” drugs is almost entirely a product of the 20th century. The prevailing attitudes towards the fly-agaric (Amanita muscaria) and psilocybe mushrooms are as much the result of the cultures in which they are consumed as of the mushrooms’ own mind-altering effects.

And the attitude of most cultures towards all mushrooms for the majority of history was one of fear. Letcher draws on ancient sources such as the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder to show the confusion and mistrust that surrounded fungi; these organisms that were not quite animals and not quite plants were regarded as “mysterious and problematic.” When hallucinogenic species were consumed by accident, the effects were considered far from desirable, and doctors employed emetics and stomach pumps to counter what they viewed as serious cases of poisoning.

Yet a small number of societies have historically used mushrooms in a mystical context, including the aforementioned Siberians and several Mexican shamanic groups. Letcher animatedly explains how this latter tradition was “discovered” by an unlikely Western visitor: Gordon Wasson, a respectable American banker, whose books and articles sharing the mushroom experience caused the practice to explode from the 1960s onward. He then provides a thorough overview of the scientists and misfits who popularized mushrooming, from the growers who learned to cultivate the caps to the visionaries whose accounts gave new trippers a framework of “timewaves” and “self-transforming machine elves.”

Letcher’s wide-ranging narrative handily dispels many of the myths surrounding the magic mushroom, grounding its usage in a solidly contemporary context. Although his writing can at times veer to the overly academic, making critiques of structuralist and Freudian philosophies that are beyond the depth of a popular science work, it is always imbued with a delightful blend of authority and irreverence (Letcher both holds two doctorates and plays the bagpipes in a self-described “acid folk” band). Reading “Shroom” is itself a trip, and one well worth taking.