The Violinist's Thumb: And Other Lost Tales Of Love, War, And Genius, As Written By Our Genetic Code

Paperback | July 16, 2013

bySam Kean

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FromNew York Timesbestselling author Sam Kean comes incredible stories of science, history, language, and music, as told by our own DNA.

InThe 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 wasn't a tan) to Einstein's genius. They prove that Neanderthals and humans bred thousands of years more recently than any of us would feel comfortable thinking. They can even allow some people, because of the exceptional flexibility of their thumbs and fingers, to become truly singular violinists.

Kean's vibrant storytelling once again makes science entertaining, explaining human history and whimsy while showing how DNA will influence our species' future.

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From the Publisher

FromNew York Timesbestselling author Sam Kean comes incredible stories of science, history, language, and music, as told by our own DNA.InThe 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 ar...

Sam Kean is the author of theNew York TimesbestsellerThe Disappearing Spoon. His work has appeared inThe New York Times Magazine,Mental Floss,Slate, andNew Scientist, and has been featured on NPR's "Radiolab" and "All Things Considered."

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:432 pages, 8.25 × 5.38 × 1.12 inPublished:July 16, 2013Publisher:Little, Brown And CompanyLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0316182338

ISBN - 13:9780316182331

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Customer Reviews of The Violinist's Thumb: And Other Lost Tales Of Love, War, And Genius, As Written By Our Genetic Code

Reviews

Rated 4 out of 5 by from Beats a textbook! A great marriage between storytelling and science! If you want to learn about the tiny bits that help shape us and some (sometimes extreme) examples of what those bits can do, look no further.
Date published: 2015-01-12
Rated 2 out of 5 by from The Violinists thumb.. Never finished this. It seemed to be just a collection of odd ball junk. I reached the point where I couldn't give any more effort about the place in the book where cat urine was discussed in detail with viral additives that supposedly made cat ladies want to sniff the smelly urine... subconsciously of course but yuck Don't spend your money, its hipster tripe
Date published: 2014-04-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Brief Summary and Review *An executive summary of this book will be available at the website newbooksinbrief dot wordpress dot com on or before Monday, July 30, 2012. 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 theory of genetic evolution, 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 turns to human DNA in particular, and what sets us apart as a species. Here we 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. And we also 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 executive-style summary of the book will be available at the website newbooksinbrief dot wordpress dot com, on or before Monday, July 30; a podcast discussion of the book will also be available shortly thereafter.
Date published: 2012-07-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from It's science meets gossip, but in a great way! 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.
Date published: 2012-06-22

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Editorial Reviews

"The Violinist's Thumb delivers the same humor and insight--and delightful anecdotes--about DNA that Kean used to make the periodic table of the elements entertaining in his New York Times bestselling debut The Disappearing Spoon." -- Brooklyn Daily Eagle