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.”

 

A Shot in the Dark – The Perils of Sharing Vaccine Science

One of Wikipedia’s most interesting articles is simply titled “List of common misconceptions.” The contents range from the invention of baseball (Alexander Cartwright, not Abner Doubleday, first codified the rules) to elephant graveyards (which do not actually exist), covering the kind of “folk knowledge” that might be erroneously relayed in a grade-school classroom. Most of these myths are harmless misunderstandings, but the fact that the article exists at all points to the frustrating difficulty of correcting false information on a societal scale.

Some misconceptions, however, have effects beyond making people sound foolish at cocktail parties. The belief that vaccinations cause autism, thoroughly debunked by the best available science, has led to a decrease in rates of vaccination against preventable diseases in many areas across the United States. This reduction in immunity among the population in turn leads to outbreaks of diseases long thought controlled, such as whooping cough, which killed 10 Californian children in a 2010 outbreak linked to clusters of unvaccinated individuals. Public health officials strive to combat the misconceptions spread by “anti-vaxxers” such as Jenny McCarthy, but too often their efforts are unsuccessful. A new study published in the journal “Pediatrics” now suggests that these messages may be worse than useless: exposing parents to scientifically based vaccine information can reduce their intent to vaccinate their children.

Surprisingly, this political cartoon may actually be understating the danger of antivaccination beliefs. Courtesy of ixdaily.

Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College, and his colleagues wanted to examine the effectiveness of different strategies for promoting vaccines. The researchers interviewed over 1,700 American parents via the Internet to determine their initial attitudes towards vaccines, then exposed them to one of four pro-vaccine messages. The “autism correction” message presented the scientific consensus on the safety of vaccination, relying heavily on statistics and links to journal articles. The “disease risks” message instead focused on the possible dangers of vaccine-preventable illnesses, such as brain damage, deafness, and death. The last two messages, “disease narrative” and “disease images,” employed more personal information, respectively presenting a mother’s harrowing story about her unvaccinated infant and photographs of children riddled with the worst symptoms of measles, mumps, and rubella. Finally, the parents were interviewed again to determine any changes in their beliefs.

Depressingly, none of the messages achieved their intended purpose of increasing vaccination intent. Presenting the “disease risks” message had no effect, while the “disease narrative” and “disease images” methods increased the belief in serious side effects. The “autism correction” approach was partially successful, as parents exposed to this message were less likely to believe in the vaccine-autism link than before reading the information. However, this same group of parents also became less likely to actually vaccinate. Although this effect was due almost entirely to changes in attitudes among parents who had previously reported a distrust of vaccines, the researchers were surprised that factual information could cause a “backlash” response.

In a recent interview with The Communications Network, Nyhan offered a possible explanation for these undesirable results. “It’s uncomfortable for [parents] to be told that this attitude or belief they have is wrong or perhaps based on incorrect evidence, and so they’re going to try to butcher that belief by saying, ‘Oh, why do I not like vaccines? Well, maybe it’s not the autism thing, but I have some other concern.’ In the process of bringing those ideas to mind, they may end up coming to believe more strongly in these concerns or objections they have to vaccines than they otherwise would have.”

Nyhan’s other work has revealed possibilities for countering the backlash effect. As reported by Shankar Vedantam, social science correspondent for National Public Radio, presenting factual information that counters a person’s deeply held beliefs may damage that person’s self-esteem. Boosting the self-esteem of parents before offering vaccine information “might help them take in the new information because they don’t feel as threatened as they might have been otherwise.” While this strategy hasn’t been tested for scientific information, it represents a promising new alternative to previous (and counterproductive) messages. The research suggests that public health officials must take a different approach if they hope to protect children from well-intentioned misconceptions.

 

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 michaelpollan.com

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.

A Drop of Value – Wine Additives

As alcoholic beverages go, wine would seem to be among the simplest to produce, requiring little more than grapes, water and time; after all, humans have been producing the potable for over 6,000 years. But the modern, industrial-scale wineries of makers such as E&J Gallo, the company behind the Carlo Rossi and Barefoot brands, have little in common with the Copper Age vessels of the earliest vintners—and their products also contain ingredients that would have astounded their Neolithic forefathers.

Holding tanks at the largest winery in the world, operated by E&J Gallo in Livingston, California. Courtesy of Wine Business.

Take, for example, the coloring agent known as “Mega Purple.” The substance, a thick concentrate of grapes from the “Rubired” cultivar, adds a rich redness and jammy sweetness to any batch of wine. Mega Purple is astoundingly potent: 200 milliliters is enough for an entire wine barrel of 119 liters (less than two-tenths of a percent of the finished product).  Although few winemakers openly admit to using the additive, anonymous industry sources estimate that nearly 25 million bottles per year contain some Mega Purple, including several ultra-premium brands.

While Mega Purple adds flavor, sulfur dioxide prevents it from being lost. The chemical acts as an antimicrobial and antioxidative agent, fighting the negative effects that can come from improper wine storage. Yeast naturally produce small amounts of sulfur dioxide during fermentation, around 10 parts per million, but winemakers often add more to ensure the quality of their products. However, high levels of the gas can cause some people to have allergic or sensitive reactions, including asthma, stomach upset and dizziness.

The speed of wine production has also increased thanks to chemical additives. Aging in oak barrels, a lengthy and expensive process, adds flavors known as aromatic compounds and is considered an integral part of making fine wines. When winemakers don’t have the time or money to spend, they can add these flavors directly through oak essence, a concentrate that imparts vanilla, spice and coconut aromas. While oak essence is certainly convenient, it can’t replace the other benefits of oak aging, such as tannin reduction and the improvement of clarity and color.

In response to these practices, a growing number of winemakers have begun to market additive-free wines. Consumer acceptance has been a challenge; without the benefit of added sulfur dioxide, for example, a wine can become murky or become spoiled in transport. But, as sommelier Hugues Lepin explains, there are some definite positives to additive-free production: “I’m often being asked by customers to choose a wine that won’t give them a hangover and I always choose a wine that’s been made with little sulphur dioxide.”

 

Eyes On You – Cereal Psychology

Any beginner’s course on public communication stresses the importance of eye contact for building a connection between the speaker and the audience. The same holds true for advice of the romantic variety, with scientific research supporting the claim that direct eye contact makes people seem more attractive to potential mates. But eyes don’t necessarily need to be human to have a powerful effect: those of a talking cartoon rabbit are just as potent.

Trix, or at least the eyes of its mascot, are for kids. Courtesy of Wikia.

The psychologists of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab set out to examine the types of eye contact made by cereal “spokes-characters” with supermarket consumers. First, the scientists went shopping, scouring ten grocery stores throughout the Northeast for 65 different types of cereal and 86 different mascots. They measured the height of each box on the store shelf and then calculated the angle of the direction in which the mascot for each cereal was looking.

As might be expected, traditional “children’s” cereals such as Cap’n Crunch and Lucky Charms were placed at nearly half the height of “adult” cereals such as Wheaties and Quaker Oat Squares. But the researchers also found that the mascots on the children’s cereal boxes almost universally had downward gazes, while those of adult cereals stared straight ahead. This difference meant that the mascots made “incidental eye contact” with their target audiences.

Although directing a mascot’s gaze may be a common marketing technique, the Cornell researchers also wanted to determine if the trick was effective. They divided a group of 63 students into two groups, showing one set of participants a Trix box with a downward-gazing rabbit and the other a box on which the rabbit looked directly at the viewer.

According to Cornell researchers, this rabbit is more trustworthy. Courtesy of Cornell University.

Amazingly, simply changing the direction of the mascot’s eyes had a significant effect on measures of “brand trust” and “brand connection,” as well as preference for Trix over other cereals. Participants who viewed the box with the straight-staring rabbit reported feeling 28 percent more engaged with the brand than those who saw the alternative.

An unscientific examination (slightly NSFW) of other grocery products by Cracked’s XJ Selman shows the same pattern: Keebler’s elves, the Kool-Aid man and Kid Cuisine’s penguin all cast their gazes towards the toddler set. These brands share more than psychology with children’s cereals, as both are generally highly processed and high in sugar. The Cornell researchers noted that eye-contact marketing to kids is used mostly for unhealthy products, advising parents to avoid taking children down the cereal aisle lest they go “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.” But with their newfound psychological understanding, the scientists also hope to advise sellers of healthier products on how to generate childhood interest in eating right.