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Review: 'The Violinist's Thumb' by Sam Kean is science as story-telling

Here's an astonishing story: On Aug. 6, 1945, Tsutomu Yamaguchi was running late to his job at the Mitsubishi headquarters in Hiroshima. When the atomic bomb hit, he was far enough away to survive the blast, but with radiation burns. Somehow he found his way onto a train back to his family in Nagasaki. He made it home the morning of Aug. 8, just in time — well, you guessed it. He survived both bombings. Remarkably, he recovered, returned to work, and went on to father two children. He lived to the age of 93.

Sam Kean uses Yamaguchi's story to illustrate the complicated interplay between radiation and DNA. His new book, The Violinist's Thumb, takes the same approach to our genetic code that his previous one, The Disappearing Spoon, took to the periodic table of elements: Kean frames complex and important fields of science on a human scale, making them relatable and meaningful.

He introduces us to a Dominican nun, Sister Miriam Michael Stimson, who helped invent Preparation H and whose research contributed to James Watson and Francis Crick's understanding of DNA. Kean deploys characters like these to illustrate concepts in the study of genetics, such as the use of DNA to trace human evolution or the ways in which our bodies read and use the information stored in our genetic code.

With this approach, he shows that science is a kind of storytelling. Science is more than charts and tables, molecules and reactions. It is a messy, human, imperfect effort to translate the intricate workings of our world into a language we can understand.

Kean lets us follow the story in precisely the way that we acquire knowledge in our everyday lives. What I know about cancer is not from a textbook, but from memories of my grandmother's death and aunt's survival, offhand remarks made by the mammogram technician, newspaper articles and Internet rumors. This wide-ranging approach mirrors the history of genetic science, as Kean demonstrates. We were breeding animals and domesticating plants long before Gregor Mendel sorted out the notion of dominant and recessive traits through his cross-breeding of peas.

In a forward-looking final chapter, Kean considers the ethics of cloning (he points out that human clones already walk among us, in the form of identical twins); the implications of a genetic basis for sexual orientation or race; and the astonishing possibility of using DNA like silicon transistors to perform calculations.

More than a user-friendly explanation of scientific principles, The Violinist's Thumb is a thoughtful work of literature that allows all of us — the nonscientists, the reading public — to grapple with the big questions regarding the history and future of our own genetic code.

The Violinist's Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code

By Sam Kean

Little, Brown, 401 pages, $25.99

Review: 'The Violinist's Thumb' by Sam Kean is science as story-telling 09/01/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 1, 2012 4:30am]

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