Thursday, February 22, 2018
Books

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.

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Events: Imbolo Mbue to discuss, sign Oprah pick ‘Behold the Dreamers’ at Largo library

Book TalkBlake High School student and author Sarah Frank (One Chance) will appear at a book launch for her novel for young readers at 4 p.m. Feb. 25 at Inkwood Books, 1809 N Tampa St., Tampa.Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker (Beyond the Sunshin...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Review: John Dufresne gives an entertaining short course in ‘Flash! Writing the Very Short Story’

Review: John Dufresne gives an entertaining short course in ‘Flash! Writing the Very Short Story’

Don’t tell John Dufresne you don’t have time to read.In fact, don’t tell him you don’t have time to write. Instead, spend a little time with his new book, Flash! Writing the Very Short Story. You’ll find a treasure trove of stories you can read in th...
Published: 02/22/18
Amy Hill Hearth’s ‘Streetcar to Justice’ brings back a forgotten story of black history

Amy Hill Hearth’s ‘Streetcar to Justice’ brings back a forgotten story of black history

During Black History Month, many students learn about Rosa Parks, the civil rights activist who in 1955 refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus to a white passenger — and rode into history.A century before that, another black woman mad...
Published: 02/20/18
Notable: Five new books for young readers for Black History Month

Notable: Five new books for young readers for Black History Month

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Published: 02/20/18
‘Hello, Universe’ and ‘Wolf in the Snow’ top American Library Association awards for books for young readers

‘Hello, Universe’ and ‘Wolf in the Snow’ top American Library Association awards for books for young readers

The American Library Association announced its 2018 Youth Media Award winners Monday during its midwinter meeting in Denver.The annual awards honor books, video and audio for children and young adults and are highly regarded guides for booksellers, t...
Published: 02/16/18
Review: Paul Goldberg’s ‘The Chateau’ sets sharp political satire in a Florida condo

Review: Paul Goldberg’s ‘The Chateau’ sets sharp political satire in a Florida condo

The election is fraught with wild allegations and vicious character assassination, accusations of corruption and kickbacks, misspelled messages and outrageous debates — and of course the Russians have their hands all over it.The 2016 presidential rac...
Published: 02/16/18

Events: Dr. Steven Masley to discuss ‘Better Brain Solution’ in Tampa

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Published: 02/15/18
Lauren Doyle Owens’ ‘Other Side of Everything’ a suspenseful look at life and death in suburbia

Lauren Doyle Owens’ ‘Other Side of Everything’ a suspenseful look at life and death in suburbia

Adel Minor dies alone, in her three-bedroom ranch house in a South Florida suburb. It’s the fire people notice first, a column of smoke rising amid the 1960s ranch houses of Seven Springs, but once it’s put out the firefighters find Adel, a widow in ...
Published: 02/14/18
Jeremy McCarter, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s co-author, tells us what he’s reading

Jeremy McCarter, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s co-author, tells us what he’s reading

NightstandJeremy McCarterMcCarter, 41, is the co-author with Lin-Manuel Miranda of the book Hamilton: The Revolution. It was McCarter who introduced Miranda to Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater in New York, and that introducti...
Published: 02/14/18
Review: David Pedreira’s ‘Gunpowder Moon’ a gripping story of murder on the lunar surface

Review: David Pedreira’s ‘Gunpowder Moon’ a gripping story of murder on the lunar surface

Gunpowder Moon drops the reader right into the action — and I do mean drops."Dechert stood at the crater rim and looked down," David Pedreira writes in the opening line of his debut novel. "Dionysius was a monster — two miles deep and wide enough to ...
Published: 02/09/18