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

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  7,688 ratings  ·  914 reviews
In The Disappearing Spoon, bestselling author Sam Kean unlocks 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
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Alvise Peccato che attribuisca "Il trillo del diavolo" a Nicolò Paganini (pag.288).

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3.98  · 
Rating details
 ·  7,688 ratings  ·  914 reviews

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Lydia Presley
Jul 15, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2012, non-fiction, 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
Sean Gibson
Oct 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
If Sam Kean had a bandwagon, I’d be on it. If he were stock, I’d buy him. If he were ice cream, I’d shove him into a waffle cone and…okay, well, now things are just getting weird. I’ve waxed poetic about my love of Kean before, and this is another delightful Kean production—though perhaps not quite as wonderful as others (particularly Caesar's Last Breath, which I think is his best work to date).

Generally speaking, Kean’s books link a string of enlightening and often entertaining anecdotes toget
Jun 15, 2012 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
Nov 05, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biology
In Kean’s follow up to The Disappearing Spoon he keeps the same breezy form but switches his subject from chemistry to genetics. While we get more science history and anecdotal stories than pure science, we still learn much about how our genome works. Kean writes for the general reader. Using his tongue in cheek style, he delivers short vignettes of scientists and famous people with genetic peculiarities.

The book begins with Darwin and Mendel and follows their ideas up through double helix disco
Sep 15, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Sep 14, 2012 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
Ross Blocher
May 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Someone scientifically curious (and fairly literate)
Genes are at the heart of this book, and the author just happens to have parents named Gene and Jean (last name Kean), so this topic is in his... well, you get it. Sam Kean is one of my favorite authors, deftly explaining scientific concepts in the context of the fascinating figures who first brought them to our attention. The stories are full of the humor and foibles of real life, and that realistic treatment brings the people and situations to life all the more convincingly. Kean has a remarka ...more
Dec 12, 2014 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
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
Brian Clegg
Jun 30, 2012 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,
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.
Mar 14, 2013 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 rea ...more

This is an intriguing but brainy read that requires not just an interest in biology but a good understanding of it. Readers should be prepared to harken back to biology class(es) to recall that A pairs with T, and C pairs with G on the DNA strand--and that’s one of the easier parts of this book. Nevertheless, the book contains enough concrete, easier-to-grasp ideas and information to keep the content from ever being dry. There’s also something to be said for Sam Kean’s engaging
May 26, 2012 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
Aug 01, 2012 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 a ...more
Aug 17, 2012 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
Jul 13, 2012 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
Jun 17, 2016 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 .
Jul 28, 2012 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 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
Aug 01, 2012 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
Dec 21, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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 20, 2012 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
Aug 22, 2012 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
Apr 25, 2014 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!
Reading Sam Kean is like eating popcorn. Tastes great, somewhat filling, and mildly nutritious, but somehow it leaves you feeling a bit empty. I’ve now read two of Kean’s books – The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist’s Thumb, and I greatly enjoyed both. He covers lots of ground and makes it interesting and entertaining. In this book, he covers the history of DNA and genetics from the early 1800s until today and hits all the major and even the minor players – Lamarck, Cuvier, Darwin, Mendel, M ...more
Aaron Thibeault
Jul 21, 2012 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 (ReasonstoRead)
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 expectations. Netherless, you have t ...more
Kater Cheek
Dec 05, 2012 rated it really liked it
Sam Kean's first book THE DISAPPEARING SPOON was my favorite book I read last year, so I was very excited to read this one, hoping that it would be chock full of the same behind-the-scenes science stories that so delighted me the first time.

It's not a bad book. In fact, I'm hovering between "liked it" and "really liked it". It has a lot of amazing stories in it. The spurious theory that Stalin may have wanted to breed a half-human half-chimpanzee super-army? Nuns doing genetic research in full h
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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 20 Aug 07, 2014 07:05AM  
It's culture that forms genetics, NOT vice versa 5 48 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
“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.” 8 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.” 4 likes
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