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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Revisiting Faith

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A long time ago on a website far, far away (sorry Blogger.com!), I used to write about faith. I haven’t done that for a while- things got complicated, I left my church, and after that, bringing the subject up felt disingenuous. Explaining my perspective felt difficult; just saying either “Christian” or “non-Christian” wasn’t true, while saying “ex-Christian” implied a grudge or enmity which didn’t exist. I’ve since deleted the entirety of that blog from the internet, which may have been a bit hasty in retrospect. But I recently read part of a book which made me think about the subject again.

When I was a psychology student and in my “learn everything about Christianity” phase, I found a book called “The Integration of Psychology and Theology”. Then I forgot to ever read it. By the time I eventually started reading the book, it logically shouldn’t have meant anything to me. But I found a lot of value in how the book was written and how it approached both topics.

Integration…  does exactly what you would expect; it talks about why people perceive conflicts between psychology and theology, and whether these conflicts can be overcome. It was written by the Rosemead School of Psychology, an APA-accredited University which aims “to train clinical psychologists from a Christian perspective”. The book lays out four potential ways in which someone can view psychology and theology:

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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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Review | A Mind of Its Own – Cordelia Fine

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Books which ask the question “what’s wrong with our brains” are a current pop-psychology staple. Cordelia Fine’s A Mind of Its Own was ahead of this trend, as it was first published in 2005.

A Mind of Its Own explores some ways in which our brains don’t make sense, and the cognitive biases which funnel us down faulty mental shortcuts. The books starts with the bias equivalent of little white lies, detailing how almost all of us are biased to see things as a little easier, happier, and less flawed than they really are. From this gentle introduction, Fine talks us through the progressively larger mental failings discovered through social psychology studies.

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Review | Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari

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I first became interested in reading Sapiens because of its polarising reviews; readers seemed divided over whether it was one of the greatest books in existence or one of the most pretentious. With my curiosity piqued, Sapiens jumped to the top of my to-buy list.

As I haven’t studied much biology or early history, I expected that Sapiens might be a challenging read. However, I was surprised by Yuval Harari’s clear writing style- Harari generally restricts his use of jargon, and uses conversational language rather than adding unnecessary complexity. The challenge in reading Sapiens comes from its ideas , not its communication.

“imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively”

“This is why today monogamous relationships and nuclear familes are the norm in the vast majority of cultures, why men and women tend to be possessive of their partners and children, and why even in modern states such as North Korea and Syria political authority passes from father to son” .

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Review | The Disappearing Spoon – Sam Kean

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I’ve previously read Kean’s third book, The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons, and I found it very informative and fun to read, so I was looking forward to reading The Disappearing Spoon.

At the beginning, the Disappearing Spoon was a more difficult read than Duelling Neurosurgeons, although that’s partly because I have less background knowledge about chemistry than I do about psychiatry or neurology. In comparison to Duelling Neurosurgeons, TDS is denser and more complex. While I could read a chapter of Neurosurgeons in one go and follow its major ideas and mechanics, I couldn’t do the same with TDS. Instead, I needed to stop and retrace my steps frequently to ensure I was keeping track of how new details related to previous information. (This applies most strongly to the early chapters, which focused on the chemistry knowledge needed to make sense of featured elements.)

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