Category Archives: Science

The Violinist’s Thumb by Sam Kean


In The Violinist’s Thumb, Sam Kean takes us on a tour of how we have learned about the genes that define us and the implications of some of discoveries behind that science. I admit that biology is not my favorite branch of science, but Kean does an excellent job of telling an engaging story about the people, their world, and their discoveries that have led to our current understanding of how our genes impact everything from our behavior to our talents to our interactions with the rest of nature. For anyone with even a passing interest in our genes and DNA, what makes us tick biologically, and how we’ve learned what we learned, this is a great book.

Kean’s focus is on DNA, the science that, over many years, led to our discovery and subsequent understanding of what DNA does, and the people behind that discovery. As he guides us through the history of DNA science, he also takes us on interesting detours, introducing us to non-scientists whose lives demonstrate the point he is trying to make. These are people with either less common genes or mutations that gave them some benefit, such as more flexible hands for playing, for example, a violin, but often also made them rather sickly and not long for the world.

There are simply too many interesting tidbits in this book to really give them justice. But, I highlight a few that particularly piqued my interest:

  • Ultraviolet light can cause kinks in certain places in DNA. Nearly all animals and plants have enzymes that can fix these kinks. Mammals don’t. That is why mammals sunburn.
  • Women were typically not admitted into the science club. One exception were Catholic nuns, who were unmarried and had the financial support and independence from the church-run convents to pursue science.
  • Polar bears survive on eating seals. Seals have a high abundance of vitamin A, which allows them to survive in the cold, promoting growth of fat cells. Polar bears have adapted to this, and can tolerate high levels of vitamin A, which is stored in their liver. However, the concentrations of vitamin A in their liver is toxic to most all other animals, even other polar bears if they ate another polar bear liver: “As little as one ounce of polar bear liver can kill an adult human, and in a ghastly way.”
  • Our DNA isn’t entirely “human” – about 8 percent is ancient virus DNA, that was introduced as viruses attacked our ancient ancestors.
  • Toxoplasma gondil (Toxo) is a parasite that exists and thrives in the guts of cats. Rats who are infected with it are attracted to cat urine, making them easy prey for cats, and thus spreading the parasite to more cats. “Overall it infects one-third of people worldwide,” settling in our brains. There is evidence that it makes infected people less risk adverse: it can make dopamine and “Some emergency room doctors report that motorcycle crash victims often have unusually high numbers of Toxo cysts in their brains.
  • Viruses probably created the mammalian placenta, the interface between mother and child that allows us to give birth to live young and enables us to nuture our young.”
  • Every known ethnic group worldwide has one of two genetic signatures that help our bodies fight off certain diseases that cannibals catch, especially mad-cow-like diseases that come from eating each other’s brains. This defensive DNA almost certainly wouldn’t have become fixed worldwide if it hadn’t once been all too necessary.”
  • Trauma we experience can be passed down to our children and, even more amazingly, to their children. Women with PTSD from the 9/11 attacks who had kids, particularly those who were in their third trimester at the time, have kids with higher levels of anxiety and acute distress than others in some situations.
  • Possibly the most amazing fact is that a child’s health is more directly related to the father’s diet during his so-called slow growth period, about 9-12 years old: “Even more strangely, the child got a health boost only if the father faced starvation. If the father gorged himself, his children lived shorter lives with more diseases.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

The true makers of history are often hidden from us, either owners of softer voices or casualties of the rhetoric of louder glory-seekers. More often than not, those lost voices below to women and that is the case for Elizebeth Smith Friedman, one of the first people to develop a science for code-breaking and a key, if not the key, figure in the development of the US’s intelligence services. As the author of her story, The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Jason Fagone writes, “It’s not quite true that history is written by the winners. It’s written by the best publicists on the winning team.”

The story of her and her husband, a leading code breaker in his own right, is fascinating, not only for the development of code-breaking as a science and their contributions to more than one war, but also because of the odd and eccentric characters that populate Elizebeth’s life. Her husband, William, was perpetually on the edge of a nervous breakdown, in part due to the extremely long hours both Friedmans put in service to the US government. Maybe most fascinating of all was Elizebeth’s first patron, George Fabyan, who created a compound outside of Chicago — the Riverbank Laboratories — which was a private laboratory researching a multitude of topics, some scientifically sound and others very much of the crack-pot variety. It was at Riverbank that Elizebeth first encounter cryptography and her future husband William. Riverbank was full of would-be scientists, studying a range of topics from hidden messages in Shakespeare’s plays to acoustics, for which it still exists. The compound raised all its own animals and grew much of its own crops for food.

During World War I, there was a dearth of people who understood encryption, much less could decipher the messages of the enemy. William and Elizebeth demonstrated their abilities and developed a true scientific approach to the problem. Both Friedmans had an uncanny knack of seeing patterns in data, at a time when computers weren’t available to help with the task. But, at the same time, one had to discern real patterns and not ones made up by their own brain. As Fagone writes, “Humans are so good at seeing patterns that we are often able to see patterns even when they aren’t really there” and “One way of thinking about science is that it’s a check against the natural human tendency to see patterns that might not be there.” Seeing and identifying real patterns was the first criterion for breaking a code.

During the time the Friedmans were developing the science of cryptography and creating the profession of the cryptanalyst (“a person who analyzes and reads secret communications without the knowledge of the system used”), the world was changing at an incredible pace. Radio communications meant that agents could speak to each other across the globe, without the need to exchange paper. The atom bomb was being developed. Politics were changing too. J. Edgar Hoover was accumulating power in the FBI and was at odds with the military in the use of cryptography. What do you do when you break a code? As was highlighted in the movie The Imitation Game about the life of another famous cryptanalyst, Alan Turing, if you act on the intelligence from the broken code, you reveal the fact that the code is broken to the enemy, leading them to change the code and breaking that stream of intelligence. Her husband called this dilemma “cryptologic schizophrenia.” It is a no-win situation for the cryptanalyst, especially since human lives were often at stake. The FBI was chasing sensationalist news rather than maximizing the benefit to the nation of the broken codes.

The story follows Elizebeth’s career from a scientist building the beginnings of a new scientific field to her work for the government, where she ultimately found a home with the US Navy, where she tracked Nazi spies in South America. She also worked for the US Treasury, intercepting the messages of crime lords working within the US. Throughout it all, Elizebeth simply did her work, serving her country, either not willing or even able to really tout her contributions and role in developing the field. In fact, after the death of her husband, she dedicated much of her life organizing his records and documents, his legacy, at the detriment of her own. However, her work, along with that of her husband, led directly to the spy agencies we have now, such as the CIA and NSA. What they created, however, ultimately led them to become uncomfortable, as the reach of agencies such as the NSA extended far into every aspect of our lives.

An interesting note that relates to our own times. In discussing the context of Germany in the lead-up to World War II, Fagone notes that “The international press covered him [Hitler] like a normal leader. Many Germans did not think he would really do the things he had said he would do.” Perhaps a caution for our own times.

Fagone weaves an excellent story, filling these larger-than-life characters with personality and telling an exciting story involving spies, drug dealers, and the future of Western Civilization. Learning about hidden heroes such as Elizebeth Smith Friedman is always a pleasure, even more so when the story is well executed.

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

Growing up, my hero was Thomas Jefferson. Here was a man who seemingly did it all: he was of course a leading figure in the founding of our nation, but he was also a gifted writer and a deep thinker, embracing a scientific view of the world. He founded the University of Virginia and, as president, drastically expanded the lands that would eventually become part of the United States. He seemed the epitome of a so-called Renaissance man.

However, as with most things, as I got older, I learned that Jefferson was a much more complex figure, full of contradictions. In the Declaration of Independence, he penned “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” yet, he owned slaves. In fact, he had an ongoing relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, with whom he fathered several children. He presented a face of aloofness to politics, seemingly above the pettiness of parties, but, behind the scenes, he was actively engaged in attacking rivals and disparaging other ideas. He was against centralized Federal power until he held it and solidified it significantly. He was terribly afraid of what others thought about him but he continued to search out the central position of national affairs.

The point of Jon Meacham’s The Art of Power is to delve into the mind of Jefferson, to explore the seeming contradictions, to understand the full person. Meacham’s goal isn’t to describe in detail all of Jefferson’s accomplishments. In fact, major events such as the revolution, Jefferson’s time in France, even his presidency are, effectively, only briefly described. Rather, it is Jefferson’s innermost thoughts that Meacham tries to probe, mostly through Jefferson’s copious correspondence and the thoughts of his contemporaries. A complex picture arises of a man who, at his core, has two primary drives: he wants to be a great man and he wants the American experiment to succeed.  He needed power and control. He needed to shape his life and society to his vision of them.

It is perhaps this that best explains Jefferson’s political life. He was so afraid that Americans, particularly the Federalists such as Adams, would revert to a monarchy of some form — worse, rejoin Britain — that he made it a key mission in his life to subvert such efforts. He felt that an educated people would make the right decision, that education begat reason and that, in turn, would lead to a good government. He expounded “the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters” and that “reason, not revelation or unquestioned tradition or superstition, deserved pride of place in human affairs.” However, he knew that an uneducated public was a danger: “if the members are to know nothing but what is important enough to be put into a public message… it becomes a government of chance and not design.” To make informed decisions, people must be informed. “In a republican nation whose citizens are to be led by reason and persuasion and not by force, the art of reasoning becomes of first importance.”

The contradictions in Jefferson’s life are best embodied in his views on slavery. It seems that he did make some admittedly small efforts to end slavery, or at least mitigate it, but, after a few defeats, he gave up. He didn’t advocate for outright freedom, but emancipation and deportation. He didn’t believe that the two races could live side by side. He realized that the institution of slavery would lead to a crisis, but he, along with many of his contemporaries, decided to punt on the issue of slavery in favor of establishing an imperfect United States. The country would later suffer greatly for this, but, in his mind, there would have been no country if they hadn’t gone this route. Perhaps Jefferson’s biggest failing is that, while he tried so hard to exert his views and meld society to his vision in other aspects, he simply “chose to consider himself powerless” over the issue of slavery. Even in his personal life, he didn’t act on his principles, only freeing those slaves which were his own children (by an arrangement with Sally when she lived with him in France to guarantee her return with him). This is where Jefferson, as a hero, comes crashing down the hardest. This isn’t simply a case where Jefferson was no less enlightened than his peers. There were many who advocated for the end of slavery. Some of his fellow Virginians freed their slaves. Emancipation was not a foreign concept, something that hadn’t even crossed their minds. As Meacham says “Jefferson was wrong about slavery,” even from a contemporary perspective.

His personal life was often filled with days of scientific inquiry. He had an enlightened view on experimentation, stating that “I have always thought that if in the experiments to introduce… new plants, one species in a hundred is found useful and succeeds, the ninety-nine found otherwise are more than paid for.” Further, he knew that not all discoveries immediately led to an amazing new application. He advocated for science for its own sake: “The fact is that one new idea leads to another, that to a third and so on through a course of time, until someone, with whom no one of these ideas was original, combines all together, and produces what is justly called a new invention.” This is a view that science requires sustained effort and encounters much failure for every success, a view that we would do well to continue to adopt in our own times.

Jefferson spoke a strong game when in the political opposition, arguing against any centralization of power and against a strong centralized government. He was a pure democrat. But, upon gaining power, he didn’t hesitate to use it. As Meacham says “It was easy to speak theoretically and idealistically about politics when one is seeking power. The demands of exercising it once it is won, however, are so complex and fluid that ideological certitude is often among the first casualties of actual governing.” This seems to be an insight we could take to heart today. We are often swayed by idealistic arguments about how the government should work, about how society should work, but we neglect the actual difficulties of governing. We are given platitudes about how things will change, but then are frustrated when they don’t change enough. This is how it has been since the founding of the country and is not likely to change any time soon.

Most intriguingly, Jefferson seemed to have a good perspective on his place in history. He was certainly very proud of his achievements, but he also knew that history would inflate them, would place the achievements of his generation on a pedestal to be almost worshipped. “They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and supposed what they did to be beyond amendment… I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions… but I know also that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind… We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” Jefferson knew that people and societies change and that their laws must change with them.

This book isn’t exactly an overview of Jefferson’s life. Rather, it tries to delve into his motivations, his thoughts, using his own words. It tries to understand what drives him. At times, it is a little frustrating in that the context isn’t fully fleshed out — the historical backdrop isn’t always clearly presented, but rather assumed — though to fully paint the picture would have led to an enormous volume. Further, there is no deeper analysis of what Jefferson was thinking. In some sense, he is simply presented, with all of his contradictions. That we can’t delve deeper is frustrating, but the simple fact of the matter is that this is the best we can do. We don’t have him here to talk to, so we can only analyze what he wrote and what others wrote about him. Thus, we are left with an imperfect portrait of an imperfect man, one who stood above others in many ways, but who certainly had his own failings. As Meacham says, “He was not all he could be. But no politician — no human being — ever is.”

I certainly gained a new appreciation for Jefferson, both his accomplishments and the motivations behind them. As an adult, I know no human is perfect and no one can be held up on an unquestioned pedestal. Jefferson, as part of the generation that led to the American experiment, is a great man, a man that is inspiring both for the depth of his thoughts and the breadth of his activities. He is also a small man, for his failures. He is a real human who made enormous sacrifices in some domains of his life but was unable to make others that were equally important. Is he my hero? No. But he is still a man I can admire, understanding that he was, as we all are, a flawed human being.

A few other Jeffersonian snippets I thought worth sharing:

  • We have no rose without its thorn; no pleasure without alloy. It is the law of our existence; and we must acquiesce.
  • Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.
  • Experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind.
  • [Good humor] is the practice of sacrificing to those whom we meet in society all the little conveniences and preferences which will gratify them, and deprive us of nothing worth a moment’s consideration; it is the giving a pleasing and flattering turn to our expressions which will conciliate others and make them pleased with us as well as themselves. How cheap a price for the good will of another!

Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn by Amanda Gefter

This book is thought-provoking.

When she was fifteen, Amanda Gefter’s father, while out to dinner at their favorite Chinese restaurant, asked her “How would you define nothing?” Her father had been thinking about the nature of reality and he had come to the conclusion that it was nothing. Or better said, Nothing. This question led Amanda on a journey, both of personal development and to understand the true nature of reality. She delved deep into what physics said about reality. Along the way, in her mind masquerading as a journalist, she interviewed and discussed physics with leading physicists. She delved deep into what the cutting edge of science said about the nature of reality. And, along the way, she discovered her own voice, writing a book detailing her journey.

Gefter’s knowledge and insight about the nature of reality, and the excitement she conveys as she learns it, is simply inspiring. As she tries to uncover what physics says objective reality truly is, she slowly finds, step by step, that nothing is objective. Beginning with relativity that said that time and gravity are relative, and through quantum mechanics, that tells us that even measurements are relative, she examines what we know, what the gaps in our knowledge are, and what that uncompromisingly leads us to conclude about reality. There is no objective reality. Every observer essentially has their own reality, their own definition of the universe.

She jumps into how that means a universe could arise out of literally nothing. As no observer can know everything about the universe, as our views are limited and finite, it puts bounds on the information we can each collect. That bound essentially leads to the formation of the universe, a shadow that arises out of nothingness. I don’t completely understand it, and not sure I buy it all, but the steps by which she gets there are all based on what our science tells us.

In any case, her examination of the science itself is fascinating. I was unaware of what the most recent developments in cosmology, string theory, and quantum mechanics were concluding. Her excitement in discovery each new twist and turn is infectious. And, along the way, she gives great perspectives of the leading thinkers in this area.

This book is humbling.

Gefter has no formal science training. Her father, though a medical doctor, is not a physicist. But, these two delve so deep into questions regarding the nature of reality, it is simply humbling for someone like me who has studied physics. Granted, I went in a different direction, focusing on the properties of atoms and materials, but still, that these two have the curiosity, the drive, and the deep intuition to really delve into these questions is inspiring. I’m inspired to try to delve deeper into my own fields, beyond the every day drivers of doing practical science. We’ll see if I’m able to follow through.

The ideas that Gefter explores, that she describes, are hard concepts  and I admit that I struggle with many of them. Most of them arise from simply considerations, typically from seeming paradoxes where some assumption leads to contradictions about how reality must be. In each case, those assumptions must be abandoned and soon we are left with very few. The chain of reasoning and evidence that leads to the final picture is well described, but they ideas are challenging. To fully grasp them, I know I will need to read further.

This book is touching.

Gefter is set on her quest by her father’s question and his own ruminations on the nature of reality. She is both accompanied and followed by her father on this quest as she makes it her own. But, the way Gefter and her father conspire as this journey unfolds, the way they discuss their most recent insights, the way they work together to delve into these deepest of questions, is, in some sense, maybe what all parents dream of. Gefter’s father inspires his daughter to undertake the quest of a lifetime. And she takes it beyond what he could have ever done on his own. The deep intellectual relationship between the two, the shared vision, is something that I could only dream of passing along to my own daughter.

This book is awesome.

The way Gefter explores the nature of reality, the way she starts on her quest knowing literally nothing about the physics of cosmology, quantum mechanics, and relativity, and reaches into the deepest understanding we have, is a great way to convey what we know about reality. She systematically crosses off elements of what might comprise reality and delves deeper and deeper into the seeming paradoxes that arise as our science progresses. I certainly learned a great deal, and the ideas presented are thought provoking in a way that is rare in such books. As opposed to other books on cosmology and string theory, this one doesn’t necessarily take a side or advocate for a certain perspective. Instead, Gefter is really trying to understand what we know and what science tells us about reality. And, in doing so, she produces one of the most entertaining and educational forays into modern physics I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

The ideas that arise from modern physics are mind bending. They push the limits of our ability to understand the world around us. They are beyond our wildest imagination. Science is often criticized for its lack of creativity, but modern physics has created a view of the world and reality that could never have simply been imagined, never dreamed up.

Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field by Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon

41P0iwFCz0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Sometimes science advances because of the constant but relatively small contributions of many scientists focused on a field. However, revolutionary advances are often the child of special individuals who see the world in a different way than their contemporaries. Such is the case for electromagnetism and the two people who took it out of the shadows and laid a solid foundation for how electricity and magnetism work. These two scientists were Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell, two of the preeminent scientists of their day. And their story is wonderfully captured by Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon in Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field.

Faraday-Millikan-Gale-1913Faraday came from a poor family and was not formally schooled in science. However, his insights and dedication to empirical experimentation provided the foundation for our modern society, discovering not only how the electromagnetic field behaved (even proposing the field in the first place) but using that insight to invent the dynamo and the electric motor. All without any resort to a mathematical description of these effects.

James_Clerk_MaxwellMaxwell, on the other hand, came from a family that could provide for a solid education. Even so, Maxwell stood apart from his peers. Inspired by Faraday’s writings, Maxwell provided the mathematical foundation to Faraday’s observations that led to our ability to really exploit Faraday’s discoveries and subsequently to a myriad of technologies we take for granted today.

This book not only recounts the development of the theories of electromagnetism, from the state of the field when Faraday began his experiments to the researchers who followed in Faraday and Maxwell’s steps, but also is a fascinating expose on how science is done and what motivates science. I was fascinated to learn that Faraday had no particular application in mind when he performed his experiments. Even when he invented the dynamo and electric motor, he couldn’t conceive of an application. The electromagnetic field that Maxwell codified in his famous equations, likewise, did not appear to have any immediate application. It wasn’t until later that other researchers exploited these discoveries, inventing the radio, and using the electric motor and dynamo to create our cities that are powered by electricity. This story highlights the extreme benefit to society of science for science’s sake. Not all science has a clear application and often it is that science that seems most esoteric that transforms our lives the most.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone that has any interest in science or science history. This story captures the wonder that motivates so many people to pursue science in the first place and places the scientific endeavor in the broader context of its role in human development and society as a whole. Simply, this is one of the best books I’ve read and I think every budding scientist would do well to read it.