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Skepchick Book Club: The Violinist’s Thumb

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Welcome back to the Skepchick Book Club! This week we’re discussing The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code by Sam Kean. If you’ve read the book or you happen to know a lot about the history of genetics, please join us in the comments to discuss.

A few interesting stories that I learned from this book are:

  • How the original fruit fly lab was set up (and the womanizer behind it)
  • The only officially recognized survivor of both WWII nuclear attacks (both the luckiest and unluckiest man in the world)
  • Badass scientist Lynn Margulis and her quest to convince other biologists of the theory of endosymbiosis
  • Hox genes that account for why animals have the same basic body plan (you mean it wasn’t this?)
  • Why eating polar bear liver will make your skin fall off
  • How to eat fried chicken when you’re a cat hoarder
  • The disgusting attempts to make a human-chimp hybrid
  • How the amount of food your dad and grandpa ate affected your current life expectancy

Below the fold are links to interviews with the author, interesting extras from the book (including pictures and more thumb notes), and this month’s recipe, in which I try to relate whatever I felt like making to the theme of the book. Also, at the bottom of the post is next month’s book and meeting time! And if you have a suggestion for a future book club, please leave it in the comments.

I was a little disappointed to find out this wasn’t the real source of our genetic code. But on the same note, at least it wasn’t that creepy alien disintegrating cream from Prometheus!

Even though I am a scientist, I am not a geneticist, so I appreciated the approach the author took to this book. Generally, science books written by people who are good writers but not necessarily scientists end up being the most fun to read. So far, Sam Kean, Jon Ronson, and Mary Roach are my favorite authors of this genre, but if you have any suggestions please let me know!

Extra links:

So, you know how this works. Write your opinions about this book in the comments and let’s have a discussion!

This month’s recipe: Katharine Hepburn’s Brownies

Make these brownies, because science.

How do these related to the book? Well, everyone likes them, so they must be an innate part of our genetic code. Or how about this: the evolutionary ancestors of these brownies were either too cakey or too fudgey, but selection eventually favored the texture and chocolateness of these reduced-flour brownies. Eat it for scientific reasons only.

Next Month’s Book Club: I will be posting on Sunday, October 7th at 11 am and we will be reading I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. Someone at the Boston Skeptics’ Book Club suggested that we needed a fiction break and also since classes are starting next month I’m extending the amount of time that you have to finish the book.

Image source

 

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5 Comments

  1. I am a scientist, with peripheral connections to genetics. I haven’t read the book.

    I’ll talk a bit more about endosymbiosis. This was accepted orthodoxy by the time I was learning about this stuff, so I haven’t observed the debate that established this.

    Eukaryotes are the big cells with a nucleus, of which all (known) multicellular life is formed, and also many single celled organisms. Not all eukaryotic cells have mitochondria, however I understand that it is believed that these exceptions are due to loss of mitochondria, rather than to them having diverged from the main eukaryotic line prior to the acquisition of mitochondria.

    Although mitochondria and chloroplasts are the big examples of endosymbiosis, there are other examples, including ones where one eukaryotic cell has become an endosymbiont of another.

    Somewhat related to the endosymbiosis theory is the hypothesis of chimeric origin of the eukaryotic cell, from a combination (possibly initially an endosymbiosis) of a bacterium and an archea. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eukaryote#Hypotheses_for_the_origin_of_eukaryotes
    Many biologists like this hypothesis, but few if any would claim it is established as true. A former supervisor of mine opposed it vociferously.

    • That’s very interesting, I didn’t study it beyond hearing about it in biology class.

      You would like the story of the scientist behind the theory of endosymbiosis. Biologists hated her until she was essentially proven right. She used to start her speeches like, “Are there any real biologists here? Good, because you’re going to hate what I have to say.”

  2. “Badass scientist Lynn Margulis and her quest to convince other biologists of the theory of endosymbiosis”

    Sorry, but no.

    Margulis was a HIV/AIDS-denier, and while she was spectacularly right on one issue, she was certainly not a badass scientist.

  3. Eek. It looks like Lynn Margulis was also a 9/11 Truther. That’s unfortunate. She definitely came across as badass in the book, but it looks like she later got knee-deep in the crazy.

    On a different note, I like the way the book handled the “DNA is language” bit. I cringed as soon as I started that chapter, since it’s a claim that I hear from creationists a lot – DNA is language, and language needs a designer, so life was designed. The chapter turned out to be interesting, though, and took a completely different direction from the overly-simplistic analogy that I’m used to.

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