Science writer Kean (The Disappearing Spoon: and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, 2010) returns with another wide-ranging, entertaining look at science history, this time focusing on the many mysteries of DNA.
The author examines numerous discoveries in more than a century of DNA and genetics research, including such familiar touchstones as Gregor Mendel’s pea-plant experiments and the double-helix model of Watson and Crick. Kean also explores less-well-known territory, deftly using his stories as jumping-off points to unpack specific scientific concepts. He discusses how DNA discoveries led not only to medical breakthroughs, but also to new ways of looking at the past; they “remade the very study of human beings.” Kean delves into theories regarding possible genetic diseases of Charles Darwin, French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and ancient Egyptian king Tut, among others, and how their ailments may have subtly affected developments in scientific, artistic and even royal history. Some stories edge into more bizarre areas, such as one Soviet scientist’s dream to create a human-chimpanzee hybrid, but Kean also tells the moving story of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, “perhaps the most unlucky man of the twentieth century,” who was near both Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 when the nuclear bombs were dropped—and who, despite almost certainly suffering DNA damage from radiation, lived into his 90s. At his best, Kean brings relatively obscure historical figures to life—particularly Niccolò Paganini, the titular violinist who wowed early-19th-century audiences with his virtuosity, aided by finger flexibility that may have been due to the genetic disease Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. Kean’s talent also shines in the sections on scientific rivalries, such as that between biologist Craig Venter’s private company Celera and the government-funded Human Genome Project, both of which are racing to sequence all human DNA.
In an impressive narrative, the author renders esoteric DNA concepts accessible to lay readers.