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 – Unscientific America

If you get most of your news from network television, it’s not entirely inconceivable that the most science-related coverage that crossed your screen in recent weeks was an account of Bill Nye the Science Guy’s short-lived run on “Dancing With the Stars.” And according to Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, the authors of “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future,” this kind of casual disregard for science in the media is a big problem.

In their book, Mooney and Kirshenbaum argue that prevailing American culture gives the public relatively little contact with the world of science, and when that contact does occur, it is too often “baffling, intimidating, and even downright unfriendly.” The authors claim that politicians, news and entertainment media, and religious leaders, as well as scientists themselves, all share some of the blame for this failure.

“Unscientific America,” courtesy of the authors.

The book’s first few chapters, which detail the changing prominence of science in America over the last 100 years, may be its most fascinating, especially to those readers (like me) born late in the century. The space race of the 50s and 60s placed science at the center of the culture, with corresponding financial and political support (including the first official presidential science advisor). Enthusiasm for science waned in the late 60s and 70s as the postwar political consensus began to fall apart, then reemerged with Carl Sagan and his famed miniseries “Cosmos.” The authors exhibit something of a political bias as they discuss the negative effects of the Reagan and two Bush presidencies, but their evidence generally supports the decline of public science through the book’s publication date in 2009.

Their discussion of science journalism is also particularly illuminating for the way in which it points out the lack of communication between the “two cultures” of scientists and reporters. Journalism, for example, often has little patience for the incremental progress of science and the corrections sometimes needed after new results are discovered, while science often bristles at the idea of journalistic balance on “settled” issues such as global warming. The authors point out a similar disconnect between science and Hollywood, where science consultants on feature films risk being seen as stodgy if they disrupt the narrative flow of a blockbuster by insisting on strict adherence to fact.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum propose that the best way to return science to cultural prominence is the training of well-rounded scientists, professionals able to cross the cultural divides that exist between academia and other fields. Although formal education is important, the authors argue that the majority of science learning takes place out of schools and that exposure to scientific concepts in other contexts does more to promote awareness about their relevance. They claim that as science progresses in its impacts, scientists must realize that communication is a central part of their job description. The thesis is sound, and “Unscientific America” offers a solid look at the issues surrounding science in the societal eye.

Book Review – The Voyage of The Beagle

Some readers might joke that I’m roughly two centuries late with this article, and I admit that they have something of a point. Charles Darwin’s “Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by the H.M.S. Beagle, Under the Command of Captain FitzRoy, R.N., from 1832 to 1836(more popularly known as “The Voyage of the Beagle“) was first published in 1839, two decades before his landmark “On the Origin of the Species.” This latter work has obviously attracted significantly more attention and controversy over the years, but in its own quiet way, “The Voyage of the Beagle” is just as fascinating a window into Darwin’s life and thought. The work that first made him a celebrity in the scientific circles of London is worthy of consideration even now.

Perhaps the most important reason to read “The Voyage of the Beagle” is the way it humanizes Darwin, one of the most revered figures in all of science. High school biology textbooks usually present the naturalist in a photograph like this one:

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Darwin’s public image follows from this portrayal as a proper, elderly, luxuriantly bearded English gentleman. Yet as Tetrapod Zoology blogger Darren Naish argues, this image lends itself to a stereotype of scientists as “oddballs that operate on the fringes of society.” Naish fears that students may fail to identify with this depiction, believing that science is something for the old and serious rather than the young and curious. “The Voyage of the Beagle,” in contrast, shows the reader a youthful Darwin, a man closer to the following fresh-faced portrait:

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Anecdotes from throughout the book give life to Darwin as a young man, closer in many ways to a frat boy than a Fellow of the Royal Society. He tries to ride the famous Galapagos tortoises when he first encounters them; he tempts temperate Tahitian islanders into sharing swigs of spirits from his flask; he nearly knocks himself out with a pair of bolas as a crowd of sniggering Argentinian gauchos looks on. He is far from all-knowing or authoritative; he is simply a young scientist out in the world, trying to make sense of it all while having fun in the process.

The way the book hints at this process is its other great strength. “On the Origin of Species” is a singular, towering argument, a comprehensive outline of the evidence for evolution and a thorough discussion of the objections that could be raised against the theory. At the time of “The Voyage of the Beagle,” however, Darwin was very much still piecing the theory together. The reader can see hints of the future with Darwin’s treatment of the Galapagos finches or the fossil history of South America, but there is also an obvious frustration, a sense that the scientist is perplexed by the evidence and lacks a complete framework into which it can be placed. The book is a humbling reminder that science takes time, that a great discovery is almost always the result of years of painstaking work instead of a sudden flash of insight.

Although “The Voyage of the Beagle” is a long read, it is certainly a rewarding one. Young scientists can take heart from its portrayal of the great Darwin as one of their own, while the general public can enjoy learning more about the thought process behind what is arguably the most important scientific theory ever to be devised. And all readers can delight in the beauty of Darwin’s eloquent descriptions of his travels, such as this extract from his time sailing towards New Zealand: “It is necessary to sail over this great ocean to comprehend its immensity. Moving quickly onwards for weeks together, we meet with nothing but the same blue, profoundly deep, ocean. Even within the archipelagoes, the islands are mere specks, and far distant one from the other. Accustomed to look at maps drawn on a small scale, where dots, shading, and names are crowded together, we do not rightly judge how infinitely small the proportion of dry land is to water of this vast expanse.”