Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Q&A with author Sam Kean

Sam Kean
Science writer Sam Kean is the author of The Disappearing Spoon and his latest, The Violinist's Thumb. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: What surprised you the most in researching The Violinist's Thumb?

A: What surprised me most was a few wild stories that I'd never heard before. (The story about Tsutomu Yamaguchi - who survived both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs - and of Ivan Ivanov - a Russian scientist who in the 1920s tried to breed humans with apes - spring to mind.) Also, I didn't know much about DNA computing then, and about how much promise DNA has as, say, a storage material for information. There's a lot of great work going on in that field right now!

Q: You write that you sent your own DNA to a lab to be tested, but that you remembered your grandfather's suffering with Parkinson's, and had concerns about finding out your own chances of possibly getting the disease. How is this revolution in personal information changing the way people approach their own potential genetic illnesses?

A: Right now, these genetics tests (at least the reputable ones) mostly just provide information; there's nothing really out there as far as cures. And I think the real benefit for people is that they can prepare for a potential problem - either physically, by altering their diet, exercise habits, or exposure to certain things, or even just prepare mentally. If appropriate (with certain types of cancer, for instance) people can also make sure to get regular checkups. We're all hopeful, obviously, that this information will lead to better cures someday, but that day might be longer off than scientists originally hoped when we finished the human genome project a decade ago. One more thing: I hope the book gets across that DNA does not deal in certainties; it deals in probabilities. So be sure you understand what your risk for a disease really is first.

Q: How did you decide on The Violinist's Thumb--a reference to the flexible fingers of the violinist Niccolo Paganini, whom you discuss in the book--as the book's title?

A: I picked that story for a few reasons. One, Paganini's such a great character - a brilliant musician with a scandalous, devilish reputation. Two, the story - which examines how Paganini's incredibly flexible hands (the product of a genetic disorder) shaped his musical skills - demonstrates the general approach of the book, which is to examine how genetics can shed new light on human history, especially areas of history you wouldn't expect. Third, the full Paganini story expresses one of the major themes of the book - that it's really your genes and your environment and your temperament all working together to make you who you are. You cannot just isolate one of those things and say it's more important.

Q: In your previous book, The Disappearing Spoon, you describe how, as a physics major in college, you were more interested in your professors' stories than in the lab work. Did you always want to be a science writer, and are there particular science writers whose work has inspired your own?

A: No, I didn't think about becoming a science writer until late in college. But I'm glad it occurred to me. I loved my science classes, but I was simply not temperamentally cut out to practice science. Science writing lets me keep up with great science, and keep current in the most exciting intellectual adventures out there today, but without having to get too overly specialized. As a writer, I can also tell stories, which is what I really love doing.

Some books that have inspired me include ... A Guinea Pig's History of Biology; Cryptonomicon; The Making of the Atomic Bomb; Darwin's Dangerous Idea; and A People's History of Science.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on a history of neuroscience, due out in the summer of 2014. It will have the same feel as the first two books - lots of funny, spooky, oddball stories - but this time focused on the human brain. I've had a blast writing it so far.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love hearing from readers. You can drop me a line - or ask for a hint to the acrostic in The Violinist's Thumb - at http://samkean.com/contact-me.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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