Review | The Violinist’s Thumb – Sam Kean

A hardback copy of the book The Violinsts Thumb.
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Biology is a conspicuous weak spot in my knowledge. My psychology education taught me a little about neurons, neurotransmitters, and brain structure. Beyond that, my main biological knowledge is trivia about platypi. So I read The Violinist’s Thumb less to learn about specific topics than to better understand how all these concepts of DNA, genes, cells and chromosomes related to each other.

The introduction sets up a powerful tension between the  scientific value gained by understanding DNA and the fears thrown up by confronting our genetic building blocks. From there, we discover the parallel stories of Gregor Mendel and Friedrich Miescher, who first isolated genes and DNA. Using these building blocks of genes, Kean leads readers towards larger structures such as chromosomes, viruses, humans, and human cultures.

I enjoyed the sections which compared how we describe DNA with how we describe language. Scientists talk about DNA using the language of…. well, language. DNA letters make phrases, which combine into sentences. DNA errors are also  linguistic; from biological typos and deletions to transcription errors and faulty copy-pastes. 

As well as linguistic analogies, Kean offers up plenty of other ways to make sense of DNA. He explains its links to music, to computing, and to the niche mathematical topic of knot theory. His eclectic approach means almost every reader should find an explanation that resonates with them. But holding them together and trying to think about all those abstractions and analogies simultaneously could feel confusing, like I had been handed pieces from three different puzzles at once.

I’ve enjoyed Kean’s previous books The Tale of The Duelling Neurosugeons and The Disappearing Spoon, and I was expecting to see more of his colloquial, comic signature style here. Kean didn’t disappoint. I found The Violinists Thumb easier to read for long stretches than The Disappearing Spoon, and more forgiving for readers with limited background knowledge.

“McClintock worked with Indian corn, the kind speckled with red and blue and found on harvest floats in parades. She’d seen the jumping genes attack the arms of chromosomes inside these kernels, snapping them and leaving the ends dangling like a compound fracture. Whenever this happened, the kernels stopped producing pigment.”

Kean’s prose will occasionally send you running to a dictionary. Surprisingly for a science book, this isn’t due to scientific jargon, but because of Kean’s extensive lexicon of uncommon words and literary terms.  I enjoyed discovering interesting words like boustrophenon (a writing system that switches between left>right and right>left on each new line) and grawlix (the punctuation symbols that replace swearing in comic-book speech bubbles), but I sometimes found explanations that stumbled if I didn’t understand a reference point. However, this only happened occasionally; almost every explanation was clear and informative without veering into detail-overload.

During the book Kean introduces many interesting researchers, from celebrated figures like Thomas Morgan and his team of fruit-fly investigators, to underdogs such as Miriam Stimson and Barbara McClintock. I appreciate that Kean never lauds himself for including female scientists, or presents any forced-feeling mentions of why they need to be included. He simply includes people with stories worth telling. Similarly, he avoids many of the traps and tropes of other media coverage about scientists. He discusses eccentric characters without stereotyping all scientists as Frankenstein’s protégés.

The middle of the book scales up from humans to humanity, and discusses humanity’s collective near-death experiences. Bottlenecks like the Tambora volcano, which reduced humanity down to a few thousand adults, show a neglected side of history. The idea that humans are lucky creatures, rather than conquering creatures, needs more airtime. When Kean discusses individuals like Einstein, King George III, and the titular violinist Niccolo Paganini, he further challenges how we think about humans. For example, discussing Einstein’s brain makes space for the question of whether people should try to explain behaviours and traits through brain wiring alone.

Finally, I was surprised by the history of the Human Genome Project, and the conflicts between Government-funded research and maverick geneticist Craig Venter. I’ve only ever heard about the HGP in hindsight as a success: I had no idea about the rivalries which ran through it. This story, alongside examples of scientists squabbling over Abraham Lincoln’s and Tutankhamen’s potential diagnoses,  adds a valuable counterweight to Kean’s usual enthusiasm for scientific progress.

Conclusion

Initially, The Violinist’s Thumb held my interest less than Duelling Neurosurgeons did, although that was from my personal preference of topics rather than any quality differences. But the later chapters on medical stories, epigenetics, and the Human Genome Project, elevated the book from good to fascinating. They showed off Kean’s breadth and depth of knowledge, and his ability to switch time periods and topics fluidly.

Its easy to sidetrack me with new ideas and tangents, so this book’s breadth is both a benefit and a minor drawback. New ideas, concepts, and tales appear rapidly, so my interest sparks continually even when it overtakes my understanding. I want to know what happens next before I’ve finished understanding what’s happening now.

Overall, The Violinist’s Thumb is filled with detailed information and entertaining stories about a wide range of biological and historical topics. This book definitely requires a second (or third) pass to fully understand, because it offers so much information and so many ideas. I paused many times just to say “oh, that’s how that works” in surprise, while after finishing the book I wanted to tell people what I had learnt.


Review | Scientific Babel – Michael Gordin

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This year, about 2.5 million scientific articles will be published. Roughly 90% of them will only exist in English. So how and why did English become the default language for scientific work? If that question interests you, you might appreciate Scientific Babel.

Scientific Babel is about the languages we use to create scientific knowledge, and how the “language of science” has changed over time. It’s partly a history of science, and partly a discussion of how languages and cultures rise and fall.

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Study Summary | To help students who self-injure, focus on helping them manage emotions

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Research from the University of Washington Medical School suggests how to improve treatments for college students struggling with non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI). Treatments which develop people’s practical skill in managing emotions may be more effective than current therapies, which instead increase people’s confidence in their ability to cope with events.

The study involved 187 students with a history of self-injury. The students provided information about their experiences with NSSI, including the age at which they first self-injured, and the reasons behind their self-injury.

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IQ | What does someone’s IQ say about them?

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I previously talked about how scores on an IQ test are developed, and what they mean mathematically. Now, I’ll look at what they can mean for individuals.

IQ could be described as the BMI of the mind. Although both numbers can provide useful information for a typical mind or body, they should still be regarded with caution especially in an atypical mind or body. BMI is near-useless for athletes, who will often score as overweight or obese due to their increased muscle mass. Similarly, IQ measurements may be helpful to understand a neurotypical person in a familiar situation, but they are flawed for people with neurodevelopmental disorders, or people who are unfamiliar with standardised testing.

3) IQ tests cannot always measure someone’s ability accurately. Health conditions and neurological differences result in people having uneven patterns of ability, which confuse IQ tests.

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IQ | How do IQ tests work?

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The Intelligence Quotient- or IQ- is one of the most popular subjects in psychology. Yet despite us often using IQ as a shorthand for intelligence, and even using it to define others, misconceptions about IQ are often louder than explanations.

So how do IQ tests work, and what does an IQ score mean?

1) An IQ test does not directly measure your ability. It uses maths to estimate your ability in relation to other people.

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Robot Wars Season 10 Post-Mortem

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This post is much later than intended, as I wasn’t able to watch all six episodes at the time and had to wait for reruns. Late enough, in fact, that the unfortunate news of its cancellation has already had its 15 minutes of angry tweets. So consider this a retrospective look at Season 10 rather than a live response. Also, spoiler warnings for the finalists and winner of Season 10.

Going into Season 10, I had been concerned about a few aspects of the show, such as the low profile of female team members, the robot reliability issues, and the focus on professionally-built robots. Rule changes ahead of Season 10 promised to bring in more diverse robots, and to counteract the dominance of spinners. So, how well did Season 10 live up to those promises?

Robots and Weapons

Episode One started well by introducing clusterbot The Swarm, built by Ian Watts of Team Big Brother fame. Clusterbots have often been failed experiments in previous series, mostly due to their weight limits and elimination rules. Clusterbots were either equally-sized pairs, or a near-heavyweight bot accompanied by a distraction minibot. As they were ruled out if either piece was immobilised, minibots were merely a liability, while paired bots were weaker than standard competitors without many corresponding advantages. However, due to advances in materials and weapons, The Swarm was made of five featherweight robots with individual working weapons. The Swarm could use four robots in each fight, and they would remain in if at least two robots (>40% by weight) were moving. This approach meant they could carry out the roles clusterbots were designed for, and generate tactical advantages like distractions and multiple angles of attack.

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Impressions | The Two Cultures – CP Snow

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I was introduced to “The Two Cultures” during the first lecture of my scicomm MSc. When we were talking about scicomm history, “The Two Cultures” stood proudly on our timeline alongside documents which were fundamental to the field. So I wanted to read it for myself.

Originally “The Two Cultures” was a lecture, presented by scientist-turned-fiction-author C. P. Snow in 1959. Snow’s titular cultures were “people of the humanities and literature” and “people of the sciences”. In the lecture, Snow sketched out  divisions between these cultures, with anecdotes from his experiences as a novelist amongst scientists and a scientist amongst literary intellectuals. He blamed this cultural divide on Britain’s education system, which forced people to specialise in one subject too early and prioritised humanities at the expense of science and engineering.

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