Book: Right Hand, Left Hand

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Right Hand, Left Hand: The Origins of Asymmetry in Brains, Bodies, Atoms, and Cultures

Author: Chris McManus
Publisher: Harvard University Press

A labor of love and enthusiasm as well as deep scientific knowledge, Right Hand, Left Hand takes the reader on a trip through history, around the world, and into the cosmos, to explore the place of handedness in nature and culture. Chris McManus considers evidence from anthropology, particle physics, the history of medicine, and the notebooks of Leonardo to answer questions like: Why are most people right-handed? Are left-handed people cognitively different from right-handers? Why is the heart almost always on the left side of the body? Why does European writing go from left to right, while Arabic and Hebrew go from right to left? Why do tornadoes spin counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere? And how do we know that Jack the Ripper was left-handed?

McManus reminds readers that distinctions between right and left have been profoundly meaningful—imbued with moral and religious meaning—in societies throughout history, and suggests that our preoccupation with laterality may originate in our asymmetric bodies, which emerged from 550 million years of asymmetric vertebrate evolution, and may even be linked to the asymmetric structure of matter. With speculations embedded in science, Right Hand, Left Hand offers entertainment and new insight to scientists and general readers alike.


Chris McManus’ Left Hand Right hand will be of interest to lefties who may have slightly resented the historic association of right-handers as being correct and dextrous (Latin dexter: right-hand side) and left-handers as sinister and gauche (Latin sinister: left-hand side with the heraldic bend sinister indicating illegitimacy). Chris McManus could hardly be more appropriately named (Latin manus: hand) and, as a university professor and one of the world’s leading authorities the extraordinary and fascinating intricacies of our fundamental asymmetry. Wherever you look in nature there is asymmetry with an inclination to handedness and, like the law and life, it is almost impossible to be even-handed. Right Hand Left Hand is a wonderful read, reaching from the fundamental depths of atomic structure (sub-atomic particles called neutrinos are left-handed) and the stuff we are all made of (the DNA double helix has a right-handed twist, although one of its co-discoverers Jim Watson is left-handed) through anatomy (our hearts generally are on our left side) up to Zulus, who reputedly cured any left-handed child’s tendency by so scalding the hand so that the child is bound to use the right hand. Whatever your inherited or chosen handedness, there is a surprise and a good story here for the general reader. You will be able to keep family and friends entertained for hours retelling the details, although they might appreciate it more if you just handed round copies of the book since it is over 400 pages long. Accompanied by illustrations, notes, further reading and an excellent index, this is one of the best popular science books of the year. —Douglas Palmer

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