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Right Hand, Left Hand: The Origins of Asymmetry in Brains, Bodies, Atoms and Cultures Paperback – 13 Apr 2008

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Chris McManus, a professor of psychology in London, probably knows more about asymmetry, lateralism, and 'handedness' than anyone else in the world. He has been researching these subjects for 30 years, and Right Hand, Left Hand is the result of that career's worth of work. It is a triumph of a book. Limpidly written, dryly witty and extraordinarily wide reaching, this is surely the most inclusive and erudite popular account of asymmetry yet produced. McManus is as happy talking about Kant's theories of spatial relativism or Lewis Carroll as he is discussing DNA or the ontogeny of the flatfish...Among the dozens of questions McManus tackles are why mirrors reflect left-right but not up-down, why clocks go clockwise...and why the male testicles are 'unbalanced.' Each chapter opens with an apparently simple question of this sort, and then opens out into much broader meditations on the origins and manifestations of lateralism...McManus's book...has centralized in an extremely elegant and ordered fashion pretty much everything you might want to know about asymmetry. -- Robert Macfarlane The Spectator The scope and range of scientific disciplines now investigating laterality is the subject of this wonderful book by Chris McManus. Although its title implies that the focus is on handedness, don't be misled...The range of topics that it covers is far-reaching, and readers from a wide range of disciplines including physics, biology, chemistry, neuroscience and psychology will all find some aspects of the book intriguing. -- William D. Hopkins Nature [McManus] has assembled more than a simple pile of trivia. Instead, he has developed (in his lively, chatter-box, detail-obsessed way) nothing less than a key to all mythologies...The book itself marshals lore from every possible discipline, from physics to philosophy, politics to semantics, with some stops in mathematics and chemistry...[A] useful corrective to the popular science notion that symmetry trumps all. -- Emily Nussbaum Boston Globe 20021006 [A] remarkable new book...with graceful and lucid prose, [McManus] outlines his theory of right-and left-handedness. Along the way there is also much exotica: Australian drug addicts licking toad skins, the driving customs of Iceland, the twists of twine in a prehistoric arrow, Charlie Chaplin's left-handed cello and van Gogh's reversed lithograph of left-handed potato eaters. -- Edward Rothstein New York Times 20021012 An engaging, erudite read on handedness, so full of astonishing facts and anecdotes that readers will want to shake his hand...Anyone who has ever wondered about handedness will want to take a look...[McManus] handles the span of his subject with a dexterous hand. -- Charles Rousseaux Washington Times 20020915 McManus examines the effect that being either right-handed or left-handed has on our lives, our culture, and our language. He explores what it is like being left-handed in a right-handed world, analyzes cerebral specialization and its links to social problems, and tries to correct some of the erroneous thinking and general misconceptions that surround left-handedness...McManus skillfully merges cultural history and scientific discovery to explain the concepts of symmetry, asymmetry, cerebral specialization, hemisphere dominance, and right/ left symbolism...McManus presents an informative, humorous blend of scientific, technical information with cultural, linguistic information...Highly recommended. -- C. S. McCoy Choice 20030301

About the Author

Chris McManus is Professor of Psychology and Medical Education at University College London, and co-editor of the Cambridge Handbook of Psychology, Health, and Medicine and the journal Laterality.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0xa1368228) out of 5 stars 8 reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa117242c) out of 5 stars A fascinating exploration of right and left 9 Mar. 2007
By one-from-overseas - Published on
Format: Paperback
This book definitely makes one pay more attention to asymmetry and what it means. The book is full of very interesting research, characters,and anedoctes, and it definitely tickle one's curiosity about the whole topic. I am left-handed, but I think that right-handed people would be just as interested, also because handedness is by no means the only asymmetry explored here.

I had only two (small) problems with this book: the author proposes his genetic model for handedness stating that it is a hypothetical model. Later in the book, however, he seems to take the model a bit too much as if it were real. And the final few chapters seem a bit rushed, compared to the initial ones. All in all, a good and interesting read.
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa1172738) out of 5 stars Very interesting for both left & right handers 23 Mar. 2004
By Keith Appleyard - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I'm a 'lefty', 'southpaw', 'cack-handed' etc. My daughter bought me this for my birthday. It was a very interesting read.
The only downside was that some of the chapters seemed too long, at over 30 pages? There were points when the topic of the chapter seemed exhausted, and was strung out, and on more than one occasion my interest waned, only to perk up on the next page when some new issue was introduced, and off we went again?
What I liked best was the little anecdotes, like how it took years for Canada to decide whether to drive on the Left or the Right, with British Columbia & the Maritime Provinces not changing over until after the First World War, and then still over a number years between 1920 and 1924. Similarly how Western & Eastern Austria drove on different sides of the road until 1938.
A fascinating read.
16 of 23 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa11728ac) out of 5 stars Left-Right Symmetries in Baseball and Physics 18 Aug. 2003
By Robert K. Adair - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As a left-hand thrower in baseball and right-footed kicker in American football in my youth, I was fascinated by the enormous amount of information on left-right asymmetries presented by the erudite Professor McManus. However my confidence in the validity of the flood of information from his extraordinarily broad set of sources was marred by finding the Professor dead wrong on contributions from the two small areas that I know better than he does -- baseball and parity in physics.
The main advantage of batting left-handed is not due to that batter being closer to first base but to the easier job the left-swinger has in hitting a right-hand pitcher's curve ball. And switch-hitters do not have an "advantage because of the unpredictability of their shot making" but because, batting left-handed against right-handed pitchers and right-handed against left-handed pitchers, they hit curve balls better.
Also, the "asymmetry" in the force on a compass needle near a current that McManus considers that Oersted ignored in early failures to detect that force in the infancy of physics, vanishes if the experimenter uses a current to makes his own magnetized needle. Indeed, it was just that left-right symmetry of electromagnetic forces that led physicists to believe that it was likely that the other fundamental forces would be similarly
symmetric. Hence, the violation of that left-right "parity" symmetry which Yang and Lee postulated and that Wu, Ambler, and others demonstrated, was very important. I agree with McManus that the "mistake" that he describes is "incredible", but it is his mistake and not that of physicists.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa1172648) out of 5 stars Science, Serendipity, Universality 18 Mar. 2009
By R. S. Nelson - Published on
Format: Paperback
More than any other author I can recall, Chris McManus brings the joy and the fun of scientific discovery to whomever will devote a little study and attention. Like any worthwhile scientific pursuit, some discipline is required to reap rewards, but the tour Dr. McManus leads you on is DAZZLING! I received "Right Hand Left Hand" as a Christmas gift from my brother, a physics professor, and felt some duty to read this odd looking volume. Starting at the beginning was slow, so I skipped ahead to Chapter 9, "Ehud, son of Gera"... From there it was an engaging, exciting, very informative read through the entire book!

Dr. McManus weaves a tapestry of self discovery from an amazing variety of scientific (and non-scientific too!) sources. The common theme that I sensed wasn't so much human left or right handedness , though this topic receives comprehensive coverage, but the process of scientific inquiry and discovery. Frequently, Dr. McManus relates the observation and recording of an oddity or unusual event where the discoverer did not have the least understanding of its significance. Only after other minds have absorbed and shared the knowledge, does it begin to be synthesized into an elegant structure of self discovery and often of great usefulness.

Dr. McManus moves easily through many deep fields of knowledge, and offers footnoted pathways for curious readers to pursue. His website, [...] expands on the footnotes and offers extra exploration opportunities. Biology and evolution, astrophysics, art history, archeology, geology, molecular chemistry, and even literature and poetry are all part of the journey!

I'll give one example from Chapter 6 "The toad, ugly and venomous", which starts out quoting from Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Looking-Glass... I remember Carroll's book as a pleasant diversion, not as information to be mined for its scientific value! Dr. McManus deftly relates Carroll's ideas to the arcane but vital concept of "chirality" in molecular chemistsry...

Right Hand Left Hand is an excellent book, and I highly recommend it!
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa1172d80) out of 5 stars Too meandering for me 15 Oct. 2012
By S. R. Ashken - Published on
Format: Paperback
I got to this book via Iain McGilchrist's "The Master and the Emissary" and came to it with high expectations... which were disappointed to the extent that I didn't complete it.

Laterality is a deep and complex subject which, McManus's book's sub-title tells us, plays out at molecular, an anatomical and a cultural level. Paragraph-by-paragraph McManus's book is very stimulating. But he made it much too hard for this reader to follow the overall flow of the argument both within and across chapters. His chatty writing style, while likeable, does not help. There's no need for complex material to be serious in tone but where there's complexity I would prefer clarity over informality any day.

If you are professionally interested in laterality then perhaps you will get past or not even notice the flaws I found. If, like me, you are an interested amateur then I would approach "Right Hand, Left Hand" with at least one of the following: trepidation; a pencil and notebook to scribble together the flow of the argument as you go; or a holiday where you can get through the whole thing quickly enough not to lose the thread from one chapter to the next.

It's a great shame as the author very clearly both knows his stuff and is deeply excited and inspired by it. But poor editing is poor editing.
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