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:  
Also on Kindle:  
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

Euler's Pioneering Equation - Robin Wilson ***

The concept of a 'beautiful equation' is a mystery to many, but it seems to combine a piece of mathematics that expresses something sophisticated in relatively few terms and something that looks satisfying. The equation that has proved standout amongst mathematicians, as by far the most beautiful (and is only placed second to Maxwell's equation amongst physicists) is Euler's remarkable eiπ+1 = 0. What seems remarkable to me about this is that it just seems bizarre that this combination of things produces such a neat result. (Incidentally, as far as I can see, the only reason for the 'pioneering' in the title was to enable the fancy graphic on the cover of the book.)

Getting popular maths books right is incredibly difficult. When I started reading this book, I really thought that Robin Wilson had cracked it. After an introduction, he gives us a chapter on each of the elements of the equation (except the plus and equals signs), from the more basic aspects like 1 a…