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

3.93 of 5 stars 3.93  ·  rating details  ·  4,904 ratings  ·  672 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 Findaway World (first published January 1st 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)
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Lydia Presley
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
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 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to David by: Aaron
Shelves: biology, science
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
Brian Clegg
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,
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
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 rea ...more
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

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
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
******NO SPOILERS******

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 p
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
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
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
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
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
Paul McNeil
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
Aaron Thibeault
*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
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
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
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
'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.
The author writes about DNA from its discovery to how scientists learned to interpret it and interpret genes, infighting among scientists working to map the genome, ethical issues, etc. He illuminates the information with lots of fascinating anecdotes and stories of people and places affected by some aberration in DNA/genes in ways we wouldn't suspect.

I'll admit that even in this work aimed at the general public, some of the science was above my head, and I yawned my way through the technical de
Overall, it held my attention much better than The Disappearing Spoon. The only weak point was the ending chapters, though this is probably more a fault of the genre of books about science than the author. I have very little patience for when books end with grandiose claims about what is currently going on. I get why you include it, since that is good to get non-scientists interested in somewhat current research. However, if you have much more than a rudimentary understanding of the subject in q ...more
Alvaro Pérez
One of the best books about genetics that I've read. The author has a great ability to mix seemingly unrelated anecdotes with real science to draw a great picture of the importance of DNA. He manages to connect the founding of Manhattan to human's inability to process the excess of vitamin A found in the liver of polar bears, or to connect the writing of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to volcanic eruptions that might be responsible for genetic bottlenecks in humans.
He also makes a great effort in h
Linda Robinson
DNA, when unwound, could reach to Pluto and back to Earth again. Kean tries to unwind most of this distance for us, and the journey is a little long. Kean writes like a fan of science, which is good, but releases a tendency to cover every sidebar story genetically connected to our code. We're reminded again of the classroom bully fights that are waged with any research, and the childish grip of some scientists on pet theories, and personal endeavor. I wonder where we would be if this sniping was ...more
Jan 03, 2013 Joan rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: science readers
Recommended to Joan by: Rebecca Bartlett
This was absolutely fascinating! The author writes in a very approachable manner, so that you can understand fairly complicated stuff without needing a scholarly biology background. He also does this with no hint of writing down to anyone. He gleefully shows how very human the scientists who study DNA and genetics are, as well as how human are their subjects, many of whom have genetic based diseases. He finishes with a cautionary note. He reminds his audience that DNA only works in probabilities ...more
Scott Collins
Entertaining, balanced and nicely written romp through the history of genetics, filled with fascinating characters such as Ilya Ivanov, the Russian scientist who tried to breed humanzees by impregnating chimps with human sperm (and vice versa, which almost happened until African officials thought better of offering up their women for such an experiment). Some of the science can be a little befuddling without a firm rooting in biology (time to bone up those DNA bases from Life Science 101!), but ...more
I binged on new release contemporary fiction lately and, while it led me to many great books, it left me craving something nonfiction. Leah K's review earlier this month of The Violinist's Thumb made my decision of what to read to balance my “book diet” a no brainer.

DNA. Amino acids. Genes. I likely lost most of you after “DNA”. DNA is the basis of all life. Just FOUR MEASLY “LETTERS” account for all of the diversity IN THE ENTIRE WORLD. Seriously. Mind blowing. But how much do we really know ab
I missed about a decade of, oh, everything going on in the world, due to childrearing and family responsibilities and constraints, so I pretty much had only the vaguest idea that the Human Genome Project was happening. This book is a great starting place for someone who knows only a little history of science and pretty much nothing about genetics.

The cutesy language that other reviewers have found irksome delighted me. Sometimes his language, his references, are quite clever. I had to look up qu
Where was Sam Kean when I was struggling through the doldrums of high school science class? Kean has a talent for taking complex scientific topics, and making them easy to understand. Even so, Kean doesn't patronize the reader - he seems to assume we're not complete idiots, but rather simply not well-versed in even basic scientific principles. Most impressive is that Kean makes the most nitty gritty details fascinating. Well, they were already fascinating, but he explains why.

In this book, Kean
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Science Book Club...: August Reads - The Violinist's Thumb 1 15 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
More about Sam Kean...
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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 emerging and vital truth isn’t who is more Neanderthal than whom. It’s that all peoples, everywhere, enjoyed archaic human lovers whenever they could. These DNA memories are buried deeper inside us than even our ids, and they remind us that the grand saga of how humans spread across the globe will need some personal, private, all-too-human amendments and annotations—rendezvous here, elopements there, and the commingling of genes most everywhere.” 2 likes
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