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

214 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0316182317
ISBN-10: 0316182311
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Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, July 2012: Born to parents named Gene and Jean, Sam Kean got enough ribbing in school science classes to develop an early aversion to genetics. Lucky for us, curiosity overcame conditioning as he became increasingly fascinated with the role DNA plays in shaping destiny. As he did in The Disappearing Spoon, a captivating chronicle of human interactions with each periodic element, Kean has created another page-turning scientific history in The Violinist’s Thumb. With fluid gusto, he turns the discovery of DNA into riveting human drama, then unfurls a series of anecdotes that expand our understanding of genetic influence on our lives as (sometimes uniquely gifted) individuals, from presidents to physicists to violin virtuosos with exceptionally dexterous digits. Kean illuminates clues embedded in our genes that help map the meandering trajectory of our species, then leaves readers with the distinct impression that all this has been a fantastic preamble to our species’ most thrilling (and likely chilling) chapter: manipulating our DNA to remake future humans, and all life on Earth. --Mari Malcolm


Named one of Entertainment Weekly's Best Books of 2012

"The DNA molecule, Kean asserts, is the 'grand narrative of human existence'-and he boldly sets out to tell the tale, not only explaining genetics and its scientific history but linking Mendel's pea shoots to the evolution of early humans....He's crafted a lively read packed with unforgettable details." -- Sarah Zhang, Discover

"Kean turns his clever eye and engaging prose to unveiling the secrets of our DNA." -- Denver Post

"Kean's accessible genetic overview, written for the layman, is often as simple and elegant as a double helix." -- Keith Staskiewicz, Entertainment Weekly

"The wonderful thing about his ability to focus on a spiraling narrative while he climbs up the double-helix ladder in this history of genetics, remaining more of less at the center of the rungs while he goes from the struggles of Mendel and Miescher to the Human Genome Project....It is a handsome story." -- Jimmy So, Daily Beast

"Kean offers up strange stories of how our genes help and hinder us." -- Newsweek, "Brainy Beach Reads"

"Science is made fun whenever best-selling author narrating." -- Susannah Cahalan, New York Post

"Kean's real knack is for digging up strange details most textbooks leave out....More than an assortment of trivia, the book is an engaging history." -- Allison Bohac, Science News

"As he did in his debut bestseller, The Disappearing Spoon, Sam Kean educates readers about a facet of science with wonderfully witty prose and enthralling anecdotes....Kean's thoughtful, humorous book is a joy to read." -- Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

"A science journalist with a flair for words...[Kean's] language is fluid and accessible, even for the science-challenged." -- Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

"Kean is one of America's smartest and most charming science writers, and his new book could be perfect for summer readers who prefer some substance with their fun." -- Michael Schaub, National Public Radio

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; First Edition edition (July 17, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316182311
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316182317
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.5 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (214 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #73,060 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Official bio: Sam Kean spent years collecting mercury from broken thermometers as a kid, and now he's a writer in Washington, D.C. His new book is The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons. His first two books, The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist's Thumb were national bestsellers, and both were named an Amazon "Top 5" science books of the year. The Disappearing Spoon was nominated by the Royal Society for one of the top science books of 2010, while The Violinist's Thumb was a finalist for PEN's literary science writing award. His work has also been featured on "Radiolab" and NPR's "All Things Considered," among other shows. You can follow him via Twitter @sam_kean, and read excerpts at

(un)Official bio: Sam Kean gets called Sean at least once a month. He grew up in South Dakota, which means more to him than it probably should. He's a fast reader but a very slow eater. He went to college in Minnesota and studied physics and English. At night, he sometimes comes down with something called "sleep paralysis," which is the opposite of sleepwalking. Right now, he lives in Washington, D.C., where he earned a master's degree in library science that he will probably never use. He feels very strongly that open-faced sandwiches are superior to regular ones.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

100 of 107 people found the following review helpful By Mary Lavers (in Canada) on July 6, 2012
Format: Hardcover
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.
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91 of 101 people found the following review helpful By Lydia on July 18, 2012
Format: Hardcover
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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36 of 39 people found the following review helpful By A. D. Thibeault on July 21, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
*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'.
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