Skip to main content

The Violinist’s Thumb – Sam Kean ****

I was a great fan of Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon, so it was excellent to see a followup in The Violinist’s Thumb. The violinist in question was Paganini who had a genetic disorder that enabled him to bend his thumb back far beyond the usual limit. And this is an indirect hint about the subject of the book – DNA and our genetic code.
This is, without doubt, a very good book. A quote from New Scientist on the front compares Sam Kean’s writing to that of Bill Bryson – I think this delusional, and possibly a little unfair on Kean. I’d say he is, as a pure writer, better than Bryson, but lacks Bryson’s superb comic touch. Kean attempts humour, but it certainly isn’t up to Bryson – the comparison just doesn’t make sense. The good news is that once again Kean has brought an aspect of science alive with a ton of excellent anecdotes about the individuals involved, in this case in everything from studying the fruit flies that form the fingerprint on the cover of the book to cracking our genetic code in the Human Genome Project.
Along the with, if, like me, you aren’t a biologist you will certainly learn plenty. It might seem trivial but the best thing I went away with was the realisation that in DNA’s base pairs it’s easy to remember that A goes with T and C with G, because the curved letters go together and the straight ones similarly. However, I simply didn’t enjoy it as much as Disappearing Spoon. That book was a page turner that I couldn’t wait to get back to – this was a bit of plough through experience.
This is mostly not Kean’s fault (except for the fact the book is too long, but that might have been imposed on him). It’s the subject. It simply doesn’t have the variety that arose from looking at different elements – here you are on the same single subject throughout. And sometimes, because of this, the entertaining side stories weren’t helpful because I lost track of the theme they interrupted. I also found that because it is a single topic, I really wanted a lot more depth, but Kean continues to skip on, focussing on storytelling not content, telling us things without really explaining them. On a technical issue I would also say that Kean leaves epigenetics too late and should have integrated it more into the rest – as it stands its importance really doesn’t come across.
Overall it’s an excellent book – highly readable and with lots of great stories. It’s just that Kean’s style isn’t quite as suited to this topic as it was to the elements, and so this title is rather overshadowed by its predecessor.

Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

Artificial Intelligence - Yorick Wilks ****

Artificial intelligence is one of those topics where it's very easy to spin off into speculation, whether it's about machine conciousness or AI taking over the world (and don't get me onto the relatively rare connection to robots - cover designer please note). All the experience of AI to date has been that it has been made feasible far slower than originally predicted, and that it faces dramatic limitations. So, for example, self-driving cars may be okay in limited circumstances, but are nowhere near ready for the commute home. Similarly, despite all the moves forward in AI technology, computers are so-so at recognising objects after learning from thousands of examples - sometimes fooled by apparently trivial surface patterning - where humans can recognise items from a handful of examples.

Even so, we can't deny that AI is having an influence on our lives and Yorick Wilks, emeritus professor of AI at the University of Sheffield, is ideally placed to give us a picture …

Apollo 11 - David Whitehouse *****

The problem with doing a book about the Apollo programme is that it's hard to find something that hasn't been said before - but with the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing just weeks away, the publication of this elegant book is extremely timely, and science-reporting veteran David Whitehouse manages to make the story feel fresh, even if you're one of the just 20 per cent of the world population who were alive on the remarkable day in 1969.

Although he has worked a lot with New Scientist, Whitehouse was for many years a TV journalist, and that comes through in his impressively engaging prose as he takes us back to the origins of the US/USSR space race that would lead to the moon landing. He passes through the wartime aspects relatively quickly, but once the two superpowers are flexing their space technology muscles, Whitehouse achieves a near perfect balance between the far less-heard USSR side of the story and the US. This is probably the best bit of the whole bo…