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

The Violinist's Thumb by Sam Kean
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's review
Sep 14, 2012

it was amazing
Read in September, 2012

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 that while we've heard of RNA, we can't really quite remember exactly what it does. He defines terms as he goes, assuming that you don't really remember or know a lot of this but that you're intelligent enough to keep up. I think I did, for the most part. There were so paragraphs that I'd definitely need to go back and reread, possibly with a reference, to fully understand, but he generally picks you again on the other side with enough of a layman's description that even if you didn't quite follow how all the proteins come together, you can still understand the overall implications by the end. And he does it without making you feel like a dolt, which is nice. Did I understand everything fully? No. Will I retain what I did get? Probably some of it, probably not all. But I think my overall understanding of where we stand at the moment is drastically improved.

And all along, he illustrates the science with history. Stories about the scientists who made the discoveries, about famous cases from Paganini to Einstein, about weird discoveries in our own genome. (Did you know that an enormous amount of our DNA appears to have been stolen from bacteria and viruses? The placenta looks like it was reverse-engineered from the traits that retroviruses use to hide from immune systems. Without incorporating retrovirus DNA into our own, we never could have developed live birth.) He usually develops a sense of tension by introducing a story at the beginning of a chapter and leaving it at a cliffhanger to explain the science going on behind the case. He'll touch base with the chapter's story two or three times, using it to illustrate various facets of a discovery, before finally resolving the original story by the end of the chapter. It's a remarkably effective technique of breaking up the long explanations.

Overall, it's a fascinating look about what we know about what makes our bodies work, and how we learned it.
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