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The Violinist's Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code

3.96  ·  Rating Details ·  6,220 Ratings  ·  783 Reviews
In The Disappearing Spoon, bestselling author Sam Kean unlocked the mysteries of the periodic table. In THE VIOLINIST'S THUMB, he explores the wonders of the magical building block of life: DNA.

There are genes to explain crazy cat ladies, why other people have no fingerprints, and why some people survive nuclear bombs. Genes illuminate everything from JFK's bronze skin (it
Published July 17th 2012 by Little, Brown and Company (first published 2012)
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Courtney Williams It refers to the virtuoso violinist Niccolò Paganini, whose incredibly nimble fingers were said to be the work of the Devil, but were more likely the…moreIt refers to the virtuoso violinist Niccolò Paganini, whose incredibly nimble fingers were said to be the work of the Devil, but were more likely the result of his genetics. His abilities included bending his thumb behind his hand so it touched his little finger, hence the title!(less)

Community Reviews

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Lydia Presley
Jul 18, 2012 Lydia Presley rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, 2012, science
I'm going to be honest and tell you the entire reason I picked up The Violinist's Thumb by Sam Kean is not because I'm interested in biology or DNA or anything to do with science really - it's because the name Paganini drew me in.

I've never been the type of girl to understand science. The closest I came was a low C in Biology 14 years ago when I attended the University of Wyoming. Ever since then I've operated under the assumption that magic sparkles course through my veins, that storks bring ba
Nov 01, 2013 Brenda rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: first-reads
What I learned from reading Sam Kean’s The Violinist’s Thumb and Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code (Little, Brown and Company, 2012):

I should never eat polar bear liver—unless I want my skin to peel off from foot to head.

My cats’ presence soothes me because the Toxoplasma gondii parasites they carry manufacture dopamine, which has a feel-good effect on the human brain.

Whales and dolphins have hair (what Kean calls “a comb-over”).

A Russian scientist (Il’ya
Sep 16, 2013 David rated it really liked it
Recommended to David by: Aaron
Shelves: science, biology
This is a very good, and entertaining survey of the history of genetics. I learned a great deal about DNA, how it works, and how scientists are trying to unravel its secrets.

Every chapter contains some fascinating facts, histories, and insights. For example, Kean makes analogies between music, linguistics, and the structure of DNA. The frequency of various notes in classical music follows a power law. The frequency of words in literature also follows a power law. Note: Kean does not mention the
Sep 14, 2012 Rebecca rated it it was amazing
Kean manages to cram enough information into this book to satisfy the armchair historian, biologist, or trivia aficionado, while somehow keeping it readable and entertaining.

It's a rather monumental task, combining the history of science with the latest discoveries. He's pretty good about explaining without talking down. I think he assumed most of his readers would be like me--took bio in high school and have vaguely kept up with discoveries announced in the press, but have to shamefacedly admit
Dec 27, 2014 Jimmy rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science
The author's parents were named Gene and Jean. That's right: Gene and Jean Kean. What else could their son do but write a book about genetics? And a fun book it is, with some fascinating stories.

There is enough DNA in a human body to stretch from Pluto to the sun and back. There's enough DNA on earth to stretch across the known universe many, many times.

Fruit fly genes have fun names, such as groucho, smurf, fear of intimacy, lost in space, smellblind, faint sausage, tribble (from the Star Tre
Brian Clegg
Jul 07, 2012 Brian Clegg rated it really liked it
I was a great fan of Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon, so it was excellent to see a followup in The Violinist’s Thumb. The violinist in question was Paganini who had a genetic disorder that enabled him to bend his thumb back far beyond the usual limit. And this is an indirect hint about the subject of the book – DNA and our genetic code.

This is, without doubt, a very good book. A quote from New Scientist on the front compares Sam Kean’s writing to that of Bill Bryson – I think this delusional,
aPriL does feral sometimes
'The Violinist's Thumb' is a perfect read for girding up one's loins for holiday dinners where lots of family members plan to attend. Not only are the stories the author relates of the foibles and craziness of world-famous scientists who were involved in historic and present studies that have impacted knowledge about DNA give one preparation for facing down your more ordinary intolerable relatives, the chapters which actually explain DNA may provide insight on why you can't stand some blood rela ...more
Susanna - Censored by GoodReads
Fun. Covers everything from the attempt to breed humanzees and why humans have 46 rather than 48 chromosomes, to why you should decline any invitation to eat polar bear liver.
Nov 15, 2016 Tracey rated it it was amazing
As usual, the actual contents of this Netgalley book came as a bit of a surprise – really? I requested a book about DNA? How unusual. And it is, very; I like a book which will feed me good solid science which has been cut into easily digested pieces rather than either handed to me whole or reduced to baby food, but I haven't read one in some time.

The fact that I was thinking of polar bear livers while typing that last sentence is an indication of how well this book has done its job.

Do I now und

This is an intriguing but tough read. As a non-scientist, I did not find it as accessible as I was hoping; if you weren’t paying very close attention in your biology classes, you might find some of the information highly technical at times (do you remember that A pairs with T, and C pairs with G on the DNA strand? That’s the easy part). Nevertheless, the book contains enough concrete, easier-to-grasp ideas and information to keep the everyday reader turning the pages. In particu
Dec 23, 2015 Betsy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone interested in genetics for the non-scientist.
Recommended to Betsy by: GR Science & Inquiry Group
I enjoyed this book, and I learned a number of things, but I also felt a little disappointed by it. It was a fairly easy read, not requiring much science knowledge, and it was well written, with humor and a relaxed story-telling vibe. But I felt that it lacked a cohesive purpose. The author told a lot of stories about what genes can do and have done, and they were all interesting and enjoyable to read. But at the end of the book, I still felt that I didn't understand a lot about how genes work ...more
Sep 04, 2012 Justin rated it it was amazing
Shelves: arc

Kean’s newest nonfiction book traces the history of DNA, from humankind’s earliest attempts to understand how life develops through to the implications of working with the recently unzipped human genome. There’s plenty of hard science that introduces the structure and inner workings of chromosomes, but the book is definitely written for the layperson.

Much like Mary Roach’s works, The Violinist’s Thumb is divided into thematic chapters that are composed of related vignettes that range fro
Aug 13, 2016 Holly rated it liked it
Shelves: 2013-reads
This got off to a bad start for me, when on page 33 Kean equated Darwinian natural selection and "survival of the fittest." (Herbert Spencer and/or "social Darwinism" were never mentioned.) Then, in an incendiary chapter on cats and toxoplasmosis ("toxo") he never explains that a cat who has lived indoors all its life cannot carry/transmit the disease. Then .... what else? The tone was too cutesy and much of the material was too simplistic - glossing over opposing viewpoints, or assuming the ...more
Nov 01, 2013 Jessica rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The Violinist's Thumb tells the story of the genetic code through the stories of the scientists who made discoveries about the genetic code, people affected by genetic mutations, and others. And the book is fascinating. I don't really have any science background to speak of, but I was pretty well able to follow the descriptions of the scientific information.

How I found this book was through the author's blog on Slate found here, where he shared some of the stories from the book in a shortened fo
Jul 28, 2012 Ellie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
DNA. It’s in all of us but did you know it tells a story? Both of the human race and its own story of discovery. The Violinist’s Thumb is not only an introduction to the science of DNA but a trip through history from Mendel to the Human Genome Project and Neanderthals to crazy cat people.

My knowledge of DNA comes from high school biology, Jurassic Park and numerous crime shows and books, so I’m by no means in a position to understand high-brow scientific tomes. Instead, Sam Kean manages to enter
Oct 18, 2012 Maxine rated it it was amazing
Pretty much all of us know that DNA is what makes us, well, us. But few of us non-scientists really understand what that means. Through a bit of hard science, a little history, just a touch of humour, and some fascinating anecdotes, author San Kean sets out to rectify this in his marvelous book, The Violinist's Thumb.

Kean explains in simple and rather poetic terms, for example, the difference between DNA and genes. "DNA", he tells us, "is a thing - a chemical which sticks to your fingers" while
Nov 01, 2013 Tony rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
THE VIOLINIST’S THUMB and other lost tales of love, war, and genius, as written by our genetic code. (2012). Sam Kean. *****.
Aside from the title, this is an excellent survey of what is known about DNA and the genetic code to date, using clear expository writing along with vignettes about the people involved known only to ‘insiders.’ The author’s previous book, “The Disappearing Spoon,” showed that he knew how to write and to hold the reader’s interest. He also seemed to have the uncanny abilit
Sonja Arlow
I enjoyed The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, a book that tackled the periodic table and the history behind it. The book included a range of humorous side stories that surrounded elemental discoveries/use/dangers.

Stories such as the unfortunate Stan Jones who, through his own sloppy self-experimentation, ingested too much silver and turned blue, FOREVER. A real life Papa Smurf.... But the book was a
Charlene Lewis- Estornell
I read quite a number of biology books and am often put off by the old gene jocks who focus on DNA, to the exclusion of epigenetic and other environmental factors that challenge the old and tired narrative of the gene centered theory of evolution. When I saw the title of this book, I felt pretty sure I wasn't going to like it, but many of my friends gave it high ratings. So, I thought I would give it a shot. Loved it!

Just as he did with Disappearing Spoon, Kean brought a fresh perspective to an
Paul McNeil
Jul 28, 2012 Paul McNeil rated it really liked it
I majored in biology in college, with an emphasis on molecular biology, so I've spent many hours reading about DNA and learning about how it works. I've even worked in a lab with genetically modified mice, and isolated RNA sequences. However, in school, things like DNA are usually treated in a pretty abstract way, and it's easy to forget the human side of "human DNA." This book does give some educational overview, but its real strength is the stories it tells.

After years in the world of the huma
Sep 04, 2012 Sarah rated it liked it
Shelves: grown-up-books
This book reads like a year's worth of blog posts bound between two covers. The snarky, hipster, ironic tone grows ever more grating. Use of words and phrases like "natch," "they threw up in their mouths," "then, just for fun, his marriage fell apart" are absolutely the way people of my age group would tell each other these stories in person, but when in the process of writing, editing, and publishing a book, it's time to grow up a bit, don't you think? It's an unfortunate distraction, since the ...more
Jul 24, 2014 Candace rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
Very scientific; the majority of the book is a primer in what DNA is, how it works, and the scientists who have played a part in its history. There are interesting narratives involving DNA, for example why crazy cat hoarders are the way they are, but I felt I had to work for them, I.e. The equivalent of taking a college exam in genetics. (Which, by the way, I did, and made an A in!)

Recommended only for those very interested in science and not just the beach reading type!
Jun 20, 2016 Carlos rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Wow, just wow . I'm glad that I found this book , the information in it is very important for the audience to know , after reading this book you'll understand how your genes are responsible for propensity to addiction, illnesses, deformation and even to genius. Highly recommend it to anyone interested into learning the language in which human life is based .
Aaron Thibeault
Dec 01, 2012 Aaron Thibeault rated it really liked it
*A full executive-style summary of this book is available here:

In a sense the story of DNA has two strands. On the one hand, as the blueprint of all that lives and the mechanism of heredity, DNA tells the story of life (and the history of life), from the smallest, simplest microbe, to we human beings, who have managed to figure all of this out. Of course, there is still much about DNA that we don't know. But given that we didn't even know of its existence
Elena (Gone Bookserk)
A Gone Bookserk Perspective

I previously read Sam Kean's book The Disappearing Spoon. I love it! Now, I decided to read The Violinist's Thumb for the same reason I loved The Disappearing Spoon, and that's because I love Sam Kean's writing. He definitely has a talent for writing about science. There's something really special about the way he tells human stories, especially when it comes to science. I thoroughly enjoyed, both of his books, even though the second lacked a little bit in my expect
Have you ever wanted to hoard cats? Did you know that there's a sonic hedgehog gene that can make your skin peel off? Can you fathom that pheromones could make you fall in love?

The Violinist's Thumb contains chapters on all of these topics - it combines shocking facts with biological premises with the history of DNA discovery. For those who love biology Sam Kean incorporates an inundation of knowledge in this book. His writing never gets too long-winded or lackadaisical; his humor is refreshing
Nov 01, 2013 Brad rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Another fun Sam Kean book. Like his earlier book The Disappearing Spoon that tackled the periodic table, Kean explores DNA and genetics in his latest with a fun and lighthearted approach. The science here is targeted heavily toward the layperson and he does a fine job introducing genetics to the unfamiliar. And he had some really great stories: the guy who was victim to BOTH Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the vicious rivalries of the Human Genome Project. Also like the Disappearing Spoon his silliness ...more
Started this as a break from a series I'm deeply involved in reading, and found myself thinking about the video explaining dinosaur DNA that is part of the **Jurassic Park** movie. Some of this seems like very dumbed-down science and other parts are very detailed. I found myself skipping around, and certainly my eyes glazed over in some places, where the tech-speak was just too much to absorb. Some of the information about the huge advances in DNA research and analysis is just mind-boggling, ...more
'The Violinist's Thumb' is an excellent overview of the history of DNA and genetics research. As I read the book in its audio version, the scientific parts were somewhat difficult to follow. Nevertheless, they were pretty well illuminated and made accessible through numerous entertaining stories, some of which a bit creepy, like the one about the attempts to make 'humanzees' (a human-chimpanzee cross-breed), yet others…hmm… a bit gossipy, let's say, but in a good, enlightening way.
Atila Iamarino
Aug 21, 2013 Atila Iamarino rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: gen-tica, genetica
Muito informativo. Achei exagerado na atribuição de vontades para genes, organismos e para evolução "o vírus quer", "o gene prefere", e escorregou um pouco em conceitos mais pesados. Fiquei com a impressão de que o autor tratou de maneira muito competente de algo que não entende tanto. Mas, como introdução à história da genética bem humorada e compreensiva, vale muito. Recomendo a todos que tem algum interesse por biologia.
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Science and Inquiry: * December 2015 - Violinist's Thumb 32 80 Jan 11, 2016 06:55AM  
Science Book Club...: August Reads - The Violinist's Thumb 1 19 Aug 07, 2014 07:05AM  
It's culture that forms genetics, NOT vice versa 5 45 Jul 27, 2013 10:16PM  
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Sam Kean is a writer in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Mental Floss, Slate, The Believer, Air & Space, Science, and The New Scientist. He is currently working as a reporter at Science magazine and as a 2009 Middlebury Environmental Journalism fellow.


(Un)Official Bio:
Sam Kean gets called Sean at least once a month. He grew up in South Dak
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“Fruit fly scientists, God bless ‘em, are the big exceptions. Morgan’s team always picked sensibly descriptive names for mutant genes, like ‘speck,’ ‘beaded,’ ‘rudimentary,’ ‘white,’ and ‘abnormal.’ And this tradition continues today, as the names of most fruit fly genes eschew jargon and even shade whimsical… The ‘turnip’ gene makes flies stupid. ‘Tudor’ leaves males (as with Henry VIII) childless. ‘Cleopatra’ can kill flies when it interacts with another gene, ‘asp.’ ‘Cheap date’ leaves flies exceptionally tipsy after a sip of alcohol… And thankfully, this whimsy with names has inspired the occasional zinger in other areas of genetics… The backronym for the “POK erythroid myeloid ontogenic” gene in mice—‘pokemon’—nearly provoked a lawsuit, since the ‘pokemon’ gene (now known, sigh, as ‘zbtb7’) contributes to the spread of cancer, and the lawyers for the Pokemon media empire didn’t want their cute little pocket monsters confused with tumors.” 7 likes
“The irony is too rich not to point out. When arranging the different human races in tiers, from just below the angels to just above the brutes, smug racialist scientists of the 1800s always equated black skin with ‘subhuman’ beasts like Neanderthals. But facts is facts: pure Nordic Europeans carry far more Neanderthal DNA than any modern African.” 3 likes
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