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on July 6, 2012
The Violinist's Thumb is about DNA. It's about how our genes affect our abilities and outcomes, and about the people along the way who have been instrumental (eh? like a violin? eh?) in discovering or demonstrating genetics at work.
The title comes from Niccolo Paganini, a violinist so talented that the church refused to bury him for decades after his death because of rumours that he had made a pact with the devil in order to play as he did. Turns out, he just had a genetic disorder that allowed him to bend his fingers and thumbs at bizarre, unnatural angles, a condition which also certainly shortened his life.
The Violinist's Thumb is, well, a bit "science-y" in places. It's been a long time since I've had to keep track of terms like genetic coding, DNA and RNA strands, double helix and chromosonal markers (Is that last one even right? I should know this. I JUST read a book about DNA!) Some of it took me back to high school and university biology classes, and some of it caused me to glaze over a bit (much like The Calculus Diaries). But the heavy duty big brain required to follow the technical aspects of the book is more than mitigated by the wealth of interesting anecdotes throughout the book. Sam Kean tells us about Gregor Mendel's nervous breakdowns, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec's famously stunted growth, and Tsutomu Yamaguchi--"the most unlucky man of the twentieth century"--who, after being caught by the atomic blast in Hiroshima got on a train and went to Nagasaki, just in time for the second bomb to drop.
Sam Kean has also hidden a little reward for his readers within the book, much like a marked chromosone in someone's DNA. It's an acrostic, or an encoded message composed of the first letter of several lines or paragraphs of text. He invites readers to email him when they've found it (or if they haven't found it and want help!). Normally I LOVE puzzles like this, but since I've been reading the EPUB edition, I'm not sure if the first letters of the lines in my copy are the same as those in the printed edition. Every time I adjust the font, the lines change! I hate to give up on a puzzle, though, so I might have to get my hands on a print edition. Well played, Kean, well played.

For more reviews, please visit my blog, CozyLittleBookJournal.

Disclaimer: I received a digital galley of this book free from the publisher from NetGalley. I was not obliged to write a favourable review, or even any review at all. The opinions expressed are strictly my own.
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on July 18, 2012
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 babies to deserving parents, and that my father gave me his caterpillar eyebrows as a way to torture me in my later years of life. Sound silly? Of course it does - that's because when I see science explained it looks as strange to me as reading a difficult piece of piano sheet music might to you (I say might here because I'm operating under the assumption that you don't play Rachmaninoff on a daily basis.)

In spite of all these misgivings, the name of Paganini, the famous violinists who - folk lore states - sold his soul to the devil for his ability to play drew me in to this book. Random fact: Franz Liszt (also rumored to be demonic in places) studied Paganini's skill on the violin and translated it to the piano. He also was the first to play music memorized on the stage for a concert. I blame him for my many breakdowns.


So Paganini was the bait, but what hooked me about this book was just how accessible the science was. Seriously, it blew me away. In between serious chunks of letters and strands and things I know nothing about were anecdotal stories and historic lessons about names and things I had never known about. It opened up a whole new world to me and in the process, I like to think, I learned a little something more then I expected to.

Fully enjoyable, well-researched and surprisingly fun - this book gave me really strange DNA dreams and made me feel a little bit like a smart person ... for a short while.
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on July 21, 2012
*A full summary of this book is available here: An Executive Summary of Sam Kean's 'The Violinist's Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War and Genius as Written by Our Genetic Code'

The main argument: 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 until a lowly Swiss physician and biologist named Friedrich Miescher stumbled upon it in the 1860's, you have to admit we've come a long way in such a short time. And this is just where the second strand of the story of DNA begins: the story of our unraveling the mystery. While perhaps not as grandiose as the story of life itself, this detective story is significant in its own right, for it has transformed how we understand all that lives--including ourselves. This is especially the case given that the latest chapters in this story have revealed not only our own genomic blueprint, but the (deeply daunting) fact that we have the power to change this blueprint and thus became the masters of our own future as a species. While each of the strands of the story of DNA could fill a book in their own right (if not several), the author Sam Kean has managed to weave the two together and fit them both in his new book `The Violinist's Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code'. Kean's project may seem like a particularly tall task, but he manages to pull it off by way of focusing in on only the main (and/or juiciest) moments and characters throughout.

Kean divides his tome into four parts. The first part explores the basics of DNA and heredity, and the earliest discoveries thereof. Here we are introduced to the aforementioned Miescher, as well as Gregor Mendel, who teased out the basic laws of heredity using his famed peas. We also learn of Thomas Hunt Morgan and his team of eccentric lab assistants who managed to marry Mendelism (genetics) with Darwinism (evolution by natural selection) to develop the modern evolutionary synthesis, which stands as the main pillar of modern biology. We also learn about genetic mutations and how these glitches are the key to evolution. Sadly, these glitches also have their downside, which we witness through the story of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who had the terrible misfortune of being in the blast area of both of the nuclear bombs that the US dropped on Japan at the end of WWII.

Part II of the book explores DNA's role in the beginnings and evolution of life. In particular, Kean focuses on the major leaps in evolution, from the first microbes, to microbes with complex internal specialization, to multi-celled organisms with specialized cells (which includes all plants and animals), to mammals, to primates, to us. All of this may sound very technical, but Kean manages to keep the story lively with tales of northern seafarers encountering angry polar bears (and learning that biting into their innards can be just as deadly as them biting into yours), and Soviet scientists embarking on a project to create humanzees (yes, that's a cross between a human and a chimpanzee).

Part III of the book turns to human DNA in particular, and what sets us apart as a species. Here we learn how our DNA reveals that our species has passed through several genetic bottlenecks--meaning there have been numerous occasions where our numbers have dwindled to near-extinction levels, with the latest bottleneck occurring as little as 70,000 years ago. This has left us with far less genetic diversity than most other species, including our closest living relatives, the chimps (compared to whom we also have two less chromosomes). We also learn about some of the genes that have contributed to the evolution of our big brains--the one thing that separates us most as a species. Finally, we learn about the role that DNA plays in our peculiar attraction to art.

The fourth and final part of the book gets into the intricacies of the structure of DNA, and how our unraveling these intricacies (through the work of Watson and Crick, and the Human Genome Project) has allowed us to manipulate life forms. While these discoveries have opened up enormous opportunities, they have also led to some very poignant questions about just how we should be using this knowledge--especially when it comes to ourselves and our own species. As our knowledge of DNA increases (currently at a rate that exceeds Moore's Law) these questions will only become more pressing moving forward.

Given the remarkably wide range of his subject matter, Kean's work runs the risk of becoming as tangled and sprawling as a string of DNA. However, the author does manage to keep the sprawl to a minimum (for the most part). Also, the science does get a bit thorny at times (the odd visual would have helped), but again, Kean mostly succeeds in making some very complex science easy to understand; what's more, Kean's clever and very down to earth use of language adds some nice flavor to the dish. A full summary of the book is available here: An Executive Summary of Sam Kean's 'The Violinist's Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War and Genius as Written by Our Genetic Code'
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We're all hearing a lot about DNA research and new genetic discoveries these days, but most of us probably have little to no idea of what it all means and what it entails for ourselves. If you want to learn more about the subject but have bad memories of dry as dust high school science textbooks, fear not, The Violinist's Thumb is an excellent resource.

The title refers to the musician and composer Paganini, who was able to stretch and flex his fingers far more than most of us, and thus was able to perform extremely complex compositions. His story is just one of many enjoyable anecdotes scattered throughout The Violinist's Thumb that all illustrate various aspects of DNA and genes. Sam Kean has a great sense of humor and he uses it to render what might be mind numbingly complex descriptions of DNA strands enjoyable and fun. He is a master of the witty aside and the written versions of the sly elbow nudge and the sneaky wink.

Do not mistake Kean's levity for lightmindedness. The Violinist's Thumb is an excellent overview of the history of DNA and genetic research, and while the anecdotes might make you laugh they also illustrate various aspects of that history. Most interestingly, Kean provides some intriguing speculations as to the future of that research and its implications for us all. I recommend The Violinist's Thumb as an invaluable resource for anyone, whether scientist or layman, seeking a better understanding of this fast developing field.
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on August 12, 2012
Written in a trenchant and even racy style, this is the best book I've read on the history of DNA. It covers the last two hundred years and makes sense of the last decade, when the promise of the Human Genome Project sort of fell apart. And it ends with an excellent chapter on epigenetics and "soft inheritance." The epilog reports Kean's experience with personal genomics testing. It is unique in naming and describing individual genes that have turned up in the headlines: foxp2 (language?), hox, igf, scaramanga (extra nipples), pokemon (now zbtb7 after a lawsuit) and a host of others, including the "suggestively named fucM gene" that "can turn female mice into lesbians." Kean's language throughout is hip and spot-on. But if there is one criticism I have it is that he may go too far in the slangy, informal direction. Of Viennese femme fatale lab assistant cum salon vamp Alma Mahler, he writes, "She had a fling with the geeky Kammerer, and while it was just another lay to her, Kammerer grew obsessed (p. 331)." That seems a bit flippant for driving a famous scientist to blow his brains out.
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on August 11, 2012
Some of you might remember Sam Kean's best seller 'The Disappearing Spoon' (see review here) and know instinctively you are in for a treat. This time, the subject is DNA and how science can now decipher this fascinating genetic code despite controversial theories abounding.

For someone like me, it means simply that DNA has shaped our past and will determine our future. I admit to be in the infancy stage when it comes to science and will not try to expend on the subject leaving it to charismatic Sam Kean and his latest book, 'The Violinist Thumb'.

Since I much prefer to stick to facts rather than my interpretation of the author's notes, let me explain this book is divided in 4 parts:

- Part 1: How to read a genetic score
- Part 2: Our animal past - making things that crawl and frolic and kill
- Part 3: Genes and geniuses: How humans became all too human
- Part 4: The oracle of DNA: Genetics in the past, present and future.

And before I lose anyone out there let me reassure you that this author has such a knack for applied science, you will just get into it and come out the better for it even at 416 pages.
Sam Kean does not leave anyone behind and will quickly grab your interest with his approach to life genetics. He is that good!

This is not a boring text book and reads as a well researched biography of DNA and what we have discovered so far on the subject. And there is so much more yet to be discovered!
With a storyteller like Sam Kean however, even the initiated will find themselves challenged to check out everything he describes, proving the subject to be that interesting. Let's call this the mark of a great teacher shall we?!

With interesting documentation including twenty six photos and illustrations, Sam Kean leads you to understand what we can expect in this wonderful universe we dwell in his epilogue or Genomics gets personal. Notes and Errata were a bit more difficult to understand as they are complex but I found myself none the less fascinated by his rationale.

All in all, I would qualify this a wonderfully researched tome which holds an in depth bibliography sure to delight serious readers!

And less I forget, here is a little something of note for interested parties:
Sam Kean has hidden a DNA related acrostic (incognito message formed by stringing together the initial letters of lines or paragraphs or other units of composition in a work...are you still with me?) in The Violinist Thumb - described by the author as a genetic "Easter egg' if you will.

If you decode his message, be sure to email him at his website (see below). And if you don't...
email him for the answer. Now that's what makes Sam Kean the sort of teacher you wished you had in High School!

I received this ARC from HACHETTE BOOK GROUP as part of their blogger review program.
I am disclosing this in accordance with the FTC 16 CFR, Part 255 'Guides concerning the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising. I was not asked to write a positive review and all opinions expressed are entirely my own.
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on November 18, 2012
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It's written in an entertaining, breezy style. The wide-ranging stories cover a fascinating variety of topics, from the man who survived Hiroshima only to return home to Nagasaki, to the violinist whose genetic defects allowed him to become an outstanding musician. There are a number of interesting photographs that didn't reproduce well on my Kindle, and a number of asterisks leading to end-notes. The author suggests that you leaf through the book to read the end notes after reading each chapter, but, for me, leafing through the Kindle is a frustrating task. So I do recommend the hard-cover edition.
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on May 14, 2014
This book really left me with some mixed feelings. Sam Kean has a funny, conversationalist style of writing. However, he is incredibly sarcastic. I find satire amusing, but his tongue-in-cheek comments got a little old. There is some very interesting information in here about DNA and genes and so forth. Although, some of it gets a bit offensive. All in all, I learned some things from this book, but I probably would not read it again.
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on March 22, 2014
I liked this book. I thought it was going to be more anecdotal than it was. It turned out to be a bit more technical than I am used to, at least as far as genetics is concerned, since I have no background and very little prior knowledge of the subject. Still the author put what is a very technical subject within reach.
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on March 20, 2013
Two books for the price of one is a good deal, but when both books are engaging, it's a great deal. Sam Kean's volume can conveniently be divided into a first half that's an exposition of what we know about DNA and genetics, and a second half devoted to how this science has played out in prehistory, historical eras, and the lives of individuals.
A strong science background makes it easier to understand the first half of the book. Unfortunately, I don't have one. My last formal encounter with a science course occurred forty-eight years ago, when I took Astronomy. (Or maybe it was Astrology. It was the '60s. I don't remember), and I barely passed. In spite of this spectacular ignorance, Kean managed, by sheer verbal firepower, to actually teach me a little about DNA. I think he figured that the subject was difficult enough, so let's make the language clear and direct. He did good.
When Kean turns to explaining how this science can help us better understand the past, and even some specific personages, I picked up the pace. I have to be honest: when most scientists try to write history, they usually produce the raw material for a compost pile. Kean beats the odds. Some of what he writes about are the quirky footnotes to history that remind you that history is about real people. It's Paganini's DNA and resultant anatomy that provides the background for the title, "The Violinist's Thumb." (If he had decided to let Toulouse-Lautrec's anatomy inspire the title, the book would have topped every best seller list.) Even when Kean delves into more serious topics like the relationship between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, he resists the temptation to lapse into jargon and confuse his reader.
Kean's style respects his readers. For example, he explains how DNA, natural selection, and sexual selection all work together to create our "lust for art." This can get pretty abstract, and I begin wondering if it's the late hour or the second Jameson's that's fogging my cranium. Then Kean interjects this, "Now, if talents on a par with Matisse or Mozart seems a trifle elaborate for getting laid, you're right;..." Whoa! I'm back in focus.
I have no idea how serious scientists regard this book, but for the layperson who is interested in learning more about modern research into DNA, one can hardly do better.
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