Wednesday, May 23, 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: Tarbell.org founder Wendell Potter to discuss, sign book

Book TalkTarbell.org founder Wendell Potter (Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It) will discuss and sign his book at 4 p.m. May 23 at the St. Petersburg Main Library, 3745 Ninth Ave. N.Applications are ...
Published: 05/21/18
The real stuff is how Tom Wolfe best used his write stuff

The real stuff is how Tom Wolfe best used his write stuff

om Wolfe’s best writing lifted real people into legend: car designers and astronauts and disciples of LSD. With that writing, Wolfe lifted himself into legend as well.The author of 16 books, including such bestsellers as The Right Stuff and The Bonfi...
Published: 05/18/18
Review: In Stephen King’s ‘The Outsider,’ evil can’t be true but must be true

Review: In Stephen King’s ‘The Outsider,’ evil can’t be true but must be true

On a July day, Terry Maitland, one of the most popular men in Flint City, Okla. — high school English teacher, Little League coach, husband and father, recently named the town’s man of the year — attends a teachers convention in a city over an hour’s...
Published: 05/17/18

Events: Gilbert King to discuss ‘Beneath a Ruthless Sun’ at Inkwood in Tampa

Book TalkCutter Wood (Love and Death in the Sunshine State: The Story of a Crime) will discuss and sign his nonfiction book about a murder on Anna Maria Island at 6 p.m. May 14 at Bookstore1, 12 S Palm Ave., Sarasota.The Gulfport Historical Society p...
Published: 05/11/18
Notable: As Mother’s Day nears, these new books are timely

Notable: As Mother’s Day nears, these new books are timely

NotableMore about mothersFor Mother’s Day, three new books offer a range of takes on motherhood.Beauty in the Broken Places: A Memoir of Love, Faith, and Resilience (Random House) by Allison Pataki is a memoir by a novelist whose 30-year-old husband ...
Published: 05/11/18
Review: A criminal’s confession is just the beginning in Michael Koryta’s compelling ‘How It Happened’

Review: A criminal’s confession is just the beginning in Michael Koryta’s compelling ‘How It Happened’

It’s what every investigator hopes for: a tough case finally solved when one of the criminals confesses, providing solid details and even describing where the bodies are buried.Or, in Michael Koryta’s compelling new psychological thriller How It Happ...
Published: 05/10/18
Anthony Award nominees include Tampa’s Michael Connelly, Down & Out Books

Anthony Award nominees include Tampa’s Michael Connelly, Down & Out Books

When the World Mystery Convention, a.k.a. Bouchercon, takes place in St. Petersburg in September and hands out its coveted Anthony Awards, the Tampa Bay Area will be well represented among the nominees.The award nominees, announced May 9, include Tam...
Published: 05/09/18
Updated: 05/10/18
Review: In Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Barracoon,’ the voice of slavery’s history speaks

Review: In Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Barracoon,’ the voice of slavery’s history speaks

It has taken Zora Neale Hurston’s book Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" 87 years to see print. But maybe it happened at just the right time.Just a week before the book’s May 8 publication date, rapper Kanye West opined in a TMZ intervie...
Published: 05/09/18
Review: Rick Bragg’s ‘The Best Cook in the World’ a loving food memoir about his mother

Review: Rick Bragg’s ‘The Best Cook in the World’ a loving food memoir about his mother

When Rick Bragg told his mother that his new book about her would be titled The Best Cook in the World, Margaret Bragg protested: "I wasn’t even the best cook that lived on our road." Bragg writes, "I told her we couldn’t call it The Thi...
Published: 05/09/18
Review: Ace Atkins takes an artful turn with Spenser in ‘Old Black Magic’

Review: Ace Atkins takes an artful turn with Spenser in ‘Old Black Magic’

Art can bring us joy, enlarge our perspective, even enlighten us. Sometimes, though, it can make us behave badly.In Ace Atkins’ new novel, Old Black Magic, art makes people behave very badly indeed.Three works of art, to be specific. A Picasso sketch...
Updated one month ago