|The hero of this conspiracy theory adventure has -- or had -- a twin brother who was an anti-social, OCD math genius precisely following the standard literary stereotype. However, he was murdered after making a startling geometric discovery about the Seven Wonders of the World. This leads the living twin (an archeologist in the style of Indiana Jones) to undertake a dangerous mission to discover the secret protected by an ancient sisterhood.
Author Ben Mezrich is almost in this database already as he was the author of the best selling non-fiction book on which the film 21 was based. So, I had reasonable hopes that he could do well with his attempt to imitate the popular Da Vinci Code genre. Unfortunately, in my opinion, he failed miserably. The best thing I can say about it is that there are so many really ridiculous ideas presented (in all seriousness, I think) in this book that I'm actually looking forward to telling you about them. With any luck, you will be ROTFL.
Where to begin....?
Okay, if you're thinking you might want to read this book despite my warnings, stop now because I'm going to go on to give spoilers that will completely give away the exciting conclusion.
- After learning about the Seven Wonders from his archeologist brother, the mathematician brother becomes obsessed with finding a geometric pattern in their locations and even gains illegal access to an MIT computer lab in order to do so. And, what he discovers is that (da da DUM...) viewed geometrically the seven ancient wonders and the seven modern wonders each form one strand of a perfect double helix. Now, I'm afraid I am having trouble figuring out how to make sense of this. Take a look at this map showing the location of the ancient wonders:
I don't see how these could lie on a helix. Or, if they did, how one would ever recognize that fact. Or, if one knew that they did lie on a such a curve how one would find it. (Would it necessarily even be unique? Certainly I can imagine some sets of seven points which lie on infinitely many different helices.) Similarly, given the seven modern wonders (which are much more geographically diverse, including locations in Asia and the Americas), it is quite hard to imagine what it would mean that they lie on a helix, and even harder to imagine what it would mean to say that together they formed a double helix. To his credit, I think Mezrich realized that it didn't make sense and so tossed in all sorts of extra words to confuse things (like "taking into account the curvature"). Nevertheless, since it is both the only mathematical idea in the book (aside from the offensive stereotype of the murder victim) and since it is the basis of everything else that happens, I am disappointed at how completely nonsensical it is.
- (Actually, I think the author makes a mistake in the book when he says that the two helices that the character discovered by looking at the locations of the wonders are enantiomers. It is not merely that this is a term generally applied to chemical structures, not to curves. I suppose we could call two curves "enantiomers" if one is a mirror image of the other. However, he does then call this combination of two helices a "double helix" and say that it is the structure of DNA. But, the helices in the structure of DNA are not mirror images. Both strands of DNA in living creatures has right-handed chirality. Scientists have produced artificial left-handed DNA, which would be an enantiomer of a corresponding natural strand with the same base sequence, but because it has reverse chirality it would not be able to form a double helix with any strand of natural DNA. You can tell he's got it wrong by looking at his drawings of intertwined snakes throughout the book. Since they are shown to be mirror images, they would actually collide twice on each turn -- once in front and once in back -- though of course DNA strands don't do that.)
- Immediately after making his discovery, before he is even able to leave the supposedly secure lab, the mathematician is assassinated. We later learn that the assassin works for the secret society. I'm not sure how they would have known that he had discovered the helical geometric secret (and not simply planning a vacation to visit the locations of the fourteen "wonders"), nor how they were able to get an Amazon warrior armed with an ancient ivory javelin into the Infinite Corridor at MIT so quickly.
- Did I say "ancient ivory javelin"? Yeah, well the police forensic team was a bit surprised by that, too. Not that it was an ivory javelin. Even though the weapon was not there when the police arrived, they were of course able to quickly determine that it was an ivory javelin from the wound and the small piece of ivory left in it. (That would be obvious, right?) No, the surprising thing was that when they dated it it turned out to be really ancient, like older than human civilization ancient. (I was surprised to learn that police departments do radiocarbon dating of murder weapons. Seems like it would not be that useful in most cases, but that's just one of the useful facts I learned from this enlightening book ; )
- I'm not sure I understand the part about the ivy plant at the Colosseum in Rome. Something about a botanist going there to see it because she could tell from a sample brought to her by a colleague that it was older than Rome itself? Again, I'm not sure what kind of dating was used here nor why. Since it was a living plant, any chemical methods I know would show that its age is 0. It says something about the DNA being older than Rome. Perhaps he means that the DNA sequence was older than Rome, but that would not be a surprise. Anyway, the part I did understand is that behind the ivy there was a carved picture of snakes in a (nearly) double-helical pose and when the botanist pushed the misaligned snake tail into place a panel slid open revealing a painting of Amazon women and a "vaguely African" looking Cleopatra carrying something out of a garden...and an intricate bronze snake segment with gears...in the Colosseum...behind an ancient ivy plant.
I don't think I've finished listing all of the dumb ideas in the book, but I've probably exhausted both the time I have to devote to it and your patience, dear reader. So, let me ask other people to please write to me with comments and criticisms. Am I being unfair? Does this somehow make more sense than I thought? Is it a completely deadpan parody and I missed it? Or, can you corroborate my critique of the book and add to the list of ridiculous ideas it contains?
- As usual in these books, there is an ancient society that is simultaneously preserving and protecting a secret. I never understand that. If they want people to know the secret, then why kill people to protect it? If they don't want people to know, then why hide it somewhere and leave clues to its location? Just destroy all evidence of it! Again, as usual, many famous people are part of the conspiracy. In this case, that includes Cleopatra (who was apparently not a Macedonian Greek, as the history books claim, but an Amazon warrior) and Amelia Earhart. (Yes, of course Amelia Earhart is in on it. That's why the plane she vanished in is buried under Brazil's Christ the Redeemer statue. Seriously, that's what the book says.)
- And what was the big secret? As we learn near the end (but can guess quite a bit earlier), it is that Mitochondrial Eve's body can be found under the Sphinx! There, in the Garden of Eden (a living subterranean garden, lit by some natural process and watered by underground streams), her body is preserved so that we can get her perfect DNA and use it to cure disease. It all makes sense, right? Except...
- ...First, let's dispel a big myth about Mitochondrial Eve: she is not the first human. There would have been thousands of other homo-sapiens alive at the same time she lived. Rather, she is the most recent common female ancestor along matrilineal lines of all living humans. There is no serious reason to doubt such a common ancestor existed, unless you believe there are humans who do not share a common ancestor, but the question of when she lived is of interest. In the 1980's DNA analysis of mitochondrial DNA suggested that this person lived between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago. But, that doesn't make her the first human. Consider this non-scientific example: according to the Bible Noah's wife would be a common female ancestor of all living people, but she's not the first woman, right? (In the case of Mitochondrial Eve it is even more complicated: there were almost certainly other women alive at the same time as her who either have no living descendants or who have living descendants but only along lines that include at least one male.)
- ...And, regardless of whether you think Mitochondrial Eve was the first woman or just our most recent common ancestor along matrilineal lines, why would anyone think her DNA was "perfect" or would lead to medical miracles or anything like that? Is there some reason to think that our ancestor's had better DNA than we do and that it just gets worse and worse with each generation?
- ...Am I to believe that over 100,000 year ago, a group of people recognized the significance of this woman and started a secret society to leave hints to the location of her body using the double-helix as a symbol? This presumes both knowledge and a level of civilization that I really have trouble imagining existed among stone age people. How did they know that her DNA was important? For that matter, how would they know what DNA was or have any idea of its geometric structure? And, did they start planning out both the ancient and modern wonders at that time? (That was very forward thinking of those cave people!)