The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Hands Are Amazing

Earlier this month, former Apple designer Bret Victor penned the most intelligent piece on what’s wrong with our visions for the future of interaction design, where in discussing the four basic grips, he mentions in passing a vintage book by John Napier, a physician specializing in hands. Having grown accustomed to finding my most interesting discoveries in footnotes and asides and passing mentions, I of course went ahead and pursued the book. Simply titled Hands and originally published in 1980, it’s a richly illustrated treasure trove of insight into the anatomy, function, and evolution of one of our most fundamentally human features. From handedness to fingerprints to gestures to grooming to the making and usage of tools, Napier covers a fascinating range of hand-related subjects, each explored through an absorbing blend of anecdote, entertainment, and education.

Right from the beginning, Napier blends science and storytelling with such Yoda-esque observations as:

The hand at rest is beautiful in its tranquility, but is infinitely more appealing in the flow of action.”


When the hand is at rest, the face is at rest; but a lively hand is the product of a lively mind.”

The powerful hand of David by Michelangelo expresses the position of rest.
Velasquez’s court dwarf at the time of Philip IV. The facial expression is one of slyness, which leads one to the conclusion that the hands are up to something equally sly. Undoubtedly the arrogant dwarf is performing a conjuring trick.

Also included is this charming time-capsule of the era’s media reality, and a powerful reminder to appreciate just what we have at our disposal today:

The gap between scientists and nonscientists is not so wide as it used to be, largely because of the influence of radio and television and other forms of science reporting.”

Then a thoughtful meditation on curiosity and cognitive comfort zones, delivered with delightfully subtle humor:

I hope that scientists will not be offended by a not-too-technical approach. They may even find it a relief for, as Margaret Mead put it, ‘To a physicist even a botanist is a layman.’ We are all laypersons once we are outside our expertise. There may be only one language of science, but there are many dialects.”

But this excerpt from the book’s acknowledgements, a true testament to networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity, made my heart sing more than anything:

Anyone who writes a book about science or indeed about any subject that is rich in facts, figures, and ideas, is from the beginning up to his neck in debt. He must beg, borrow, and steal left, right, and center… Much of one’s information is derived from memories of conversations heard, snippets of fact retained, and bright ideas once read but the source promptly forgotten.”

Whether you’re a designer or detective, artist or anthropologist, surgeon or synchronized swimmer, Hands is the kind of book you won’t be able to put down, thanks to both the miracle of your opposable thumbs and Napier’s captivating edification.

Published November 18, 2011




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