Last Updated: Jan 8th, 2015 - 07:42:25

Best-selling author speaks at Thomas Dale High School
By Blake Belden, Staff Writer
Oct 23, 2013, 16:27

BLAKE BELDEN/HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT Sam Kean signs books for students at Thomas Dale High.

CHESTERFIELD — Beethoven died of syphilis, Edgar Allan Poe died of rabies, Charles Darwin was lactose intolerant and Darth Vader had a borderline personality disorder.

These are all examples of what author Sam Kean referred to as a retro diagnosis, a retrospective, hypothetical, and often times inaccurate, medical analysis of historical figures and even fictional characters, who at the time of their existence didn’t have the scientific medical evidence we have today in determining their illnesses (the previously suggested diagnoses Kean has actually seen in scientific papers).

Kean, a writer for Science Magazine and N.Y. Times best-selling author, brought this up as part of a discussion regarding the history and study of genetics and DNA at Thomas Dale High School on Monday night for Chesterfield County Public Schools’ 21st consecutive Science Visiting Author Program.

The discussion was designed to use Kean’s new book, The Violinist’s Thumb, to initiate a greater dialogue on the advancements in the scientific studies of genes and DNA, and to explore the quirky history that traces the timeline of scientific research and human evolution from the past to the present.

“Above all, [DNA] is a language. It stores information in your cells and passes it on to the next generation, so it’s a language. Well if DNA is a language, I like to think about genes as stories with DNA as the language those stories are written in,” Kean said during the presentation. “... And if DNA changes, and it gets damaged or mutated, the language changes, so the story changes, your body traits change.”

Kean said that the study of genetics is a powerful tool that can be used to dissect the annals of history, emphasizing his point with an anecdote about scientists studying the DNA of mummified Egyptian pharaohs to discover that their hieroglyphic depictions were often times illustrated for propaganda purposes, as well as determining King Tut’s rate of death based on the genetic testing of mold found on the walls in his tomb.

“I love this story because it shows how you can start with something, like DNA, like genes, and if you know what you’re doing, you can kind of parlay that into a lot more information about the era’s history, politics, it’s art, it’s funeral practices, all of these different areas of life, just from DNA,” Kean said.

Kean spoke about numerous other genetic topics including a fruit fly’s “Tin Man Gene,” from which it cannot develop a heart, and the story of Thomas Harvey, a pathologist who extracted Albert Einstein’s brain from his head during an autopsy, cut it up into many pieces and sent them to neuroscientists across the country to try and understand what comprised the brain of a genius.
BLAKE BELDEN/HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT Thomas Dale Fine and Performing Arts students performed the “Marfan’s Syndrome Rap.”

Dr. Melanie Haimes-Bartolf, the instructional specialist for science for Chesterfield County Public Schools, said that they partnered with Dr. Krishan Agrawal from Virginia State University to make the program happen, and that it’s important that students learn the benefits of integrating science, technology and society into everyday life.

“I’m interested in students becoming literate and fluent in science and I think exposure to an author first hand reading this book, meeting the author and being able to speak with the author is an excellent way to inspire kids to read more about science, and also may be science writers themselves someday,” she said.

As far as specifically getting Sam Kean to speak at the school, Haimes-Bartolf credited the faculty for ultimately making the choice.

“They had read about him when they were doing work in genetics in their biology classes, and he’s a very excellent, popular author. And they started to read about it and the kids just loved reading about him,” she said.

The discussion, free and open to the public, was followed by a Q&A session, as well as several performances from Thomas Dale Fine and Performing Arts Specialty Center students inspired by Kean’s work.  Some of the performances included two students who performed a song titled “I Owe My Fame to DNA,” two students who acted out a scene depicting the timeline of human evolution and three students who sang the “Marfan’s Syndrome Rap,” based on the genetic disorder for which Kean’s book is named.

Through the program, many prominent authors have been drawn to Chesterfield including, most recently, Dr. Allen Buchanan, the author of “Better Than Human: The Promise and Perils of Enhancing Ourselves,” and Dr. Rutger Van Santen, who wrote “2030 Technology That Will Change The World.”

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