Review of “The Violinist’s Thumb” by Sam Kean

You may recognize the author’s name because of his previous bestselling book about the periodic table, The Disappearing Spoon. In this book, he tackles genetics, doing a fine job in explaining a very complex subject bit by bit, with clever analogies and a good deal of humor.

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There are loads of interesting tidbits:

Of all the survivors of the World War II atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some 150 were caught near both cities on both days! (Talk about a run of bad luck!)

In the 1940’s and 1950’s, many female scientists were nuns, because, as Kean explains,

Women at the time usually had to relinquish their careers upon marrying, while unmarried women…provoked suspicion or derision and sometimes earned such low pay they couldn’t make ends meet.”

Humans share about 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees, making them our closest living relatives.

But male chimps have something humans don’t: little bumps called spines on their penises. According to Kean, “this loss decreases male sensation during sex and thereby prolongs copulation, which scientists suspect helps humans pair-bond and stay monogamous.”

Who knew?

Kean explains why Arctic explorers can risk death by eating the liver of polar bears, or why some people who have one cat start getting more cats. He also talks about the phenomenon of epigenetics: how genes can, in fact, be influenced by the environment, with the effects actually passed on to progeny, much as theorized by the discredited Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. He even explains how why the beliefs of some religions couldn’t possibly be true: the genetic evidence tells a different story.

Evaluation: This book is full of fascinating anecdotes, as well as a lot of science, which you can actually just scan if you prefer, without it detracting from the general thrust of the book.

One big criticism: When I read a nonfiction book, I depend heavily on the index to help me refer back to ideas I just read 20 minutes ago but forgot already. The index in this book is extremely inadequate. Want to look up that bit about cats, for example? Well, you won’t find anything under “cat” or “feline”: unless you remember that the organism which is the culprit is called Toxoplasma gondii, you’re out of luck!

Otherwise, it was a very entertaining read; once again Kean has succeeded in making science fun, which is absolutely a good thing!

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2012

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11 Responses

  1. I’ve been curious about this one, since I just read The Disappearing Spoon for the first time earlier this year. I enjoyed it, but felt like some of the science went a little over my (more history focused) head at times. I do think that DNA is something that I would be a little more interested in, though, so I still might give it a shot.

  2. How fun!!!!! And I fear that I have a very bad case of Toxoplasma gondil. Glad to know that it isn’t just because I’m weak :)

  3. I loved genetics in school so this sounds like it was written for me. If/when I read it, I will drive everyone crazy sharing all those tidbits of information.

  4. Ooh, that index sounds really hilarious! But probably not the author’s fault, right? What a fun subject matter!

  5. That cover looks more fiction than nonfiction. I love the sound of this one though and I don’t think I heard about this author’s previous book yet. I need to look this up.

  6. I thought this was a fictional book based on the cover, but pleasantly surprised to hear all the anecdotes because I do love me some anecdotes. :)

  7. I’ll have to be on the look-out for this one because I think Scott would love it! He loves the random “did you know…” type of knowledge and these types of books are perfect for roadtrips (as long as I can scan through the scientific hoopla). ;)

  8. I’m sorry but to my way of thinking the words “fun” and “science” should never be used in the same sentence. I must admit though that I enjoy John McPhee’s books on any topic including science, and I used to read Stephen Gould’s columns religiously.

  9. I want to read more about epigenetics! Does Kean mention any books that are all about epigenetics, by any chance?

    (Bad indexes are the worst, and I say that as a person who once made a bad index. The professor to whom I was a research assistant couldn’t be bothered hiring a proper indexer and used me instead; and I did my best, but really, you have to hire a freelance indexer who knows what they’re doing. There’s no substitute for it.)

  10. Well, that’s what I get for not reading this one in 2013! It’s not going anywhere so I’ll have to read it when I need to feel smart :)

  11. That sounds kind of like a fun read!

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