Review of The Violinist’s Thumb and Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius as Written by Our Genetic Code

The Violinist’s Thumb and Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius as Written by Our Genetic Code by Sam Kean
(Little, Brown, 416 pages, $25.99, July, 2012)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Note: This review is the copyrighted property of Alfred B. Bortz. Individuals may print single copies for their own use. For permission to publish or print multiple copies, please contact the author by e-mail.

Discover more about The Violinist’s Thumb

When I finish this review, I’m going to send Sam Kean an e-mail through his website. I’m not going to laud his clever prose or to praise his memorable collection of stories in The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, As Written by Our Genetic Code.

I’m not going to tell him how, as a fellow writer, I was struck by the way his chapter-by-chapter narrative allowed knowledge to emerge as a whole, just as the sequence of chemical units known as A, C, G, and T along a DNA molecule encodes and guides the process through which cells create an emergent living organism.

No, my email will have a more prosaic purpose: I will ask for a hint to the hidden DNA-related acrostic, “a genetic ‘Easter egg,’ if you will” that he tempts readers with on the page opposite the copyright information. I was so busy enjoying the book that I forgot to look for it!

Kean sets an entertaining tone in the first paragraphs of the introduction: “And yes, I’m writing this book despite the fact that my father’s name is Gene. As is my mother’s name…. Jean and Gene Kean…. Bottom line is, I dreaded learning about DNA and genes in science classes growing up because I knew some witticism would be coming within two seconds of the teacher turning her back.”

It is the reader’s good fortune that Kean did not deny Gene and Jean’s genetic and environmental contributions to his scientific curiosity and linguistic skill. Instead, he took advantage of that endowment to develop his literary prowess, just as Niccolo Paganini exploited “a genetic disorder that gave him freakishly flexible fingers” to become a virtuoso violinist.

For some readers, the best part of the book will be the re-discovery of greats like Mendel, Darwin, and Watson, through little known stories–even Lamarck, whose discredited theory that environmental conditions can cause heritable change was a Marxist favorite (and has recently been shown to be right in an odd sense because of a discovery known as epigenetics).

Others will enjoy going behind the scenes of the Human Genome Project, where J. Craig Venter’s agitation from inside and competition from the outside led to the project’s early completion. Venter is widely admired and despised, and Kean explains why both responses are appropriate.

Still others will be captivated by the Kean’s stories of lesser known but important characters like Johannes Friedrich Miescher, who discovered DNA in white blood cells in 1868 by studying the pus on freshly removed hospital wound dressings. And it’s hard to ignore fascinating tidbits of knowledge like the uncomfortable way that Arctic explorers discovered what natives already knew about the toxicity of polar bear livers; or that a gram of DNA contains as much digital information as a trillion CDs.

Finally, readers should not overlook the joy of reading the book’s copious set of research notes, such as this relating to the naming of Megalosaurus. The first bones of that huge creature were discovered in the 1600s but thought to come from giant humans. “Strangely, two knobs on the end of a femur apparently traced out with Michelangelo-like versimilitude the lower half of the human male package, inspiring a less-than-dignified moniker for the purported giants. Arguably, based on scientific priority in naming, the first known dinosaur species should be called Scrotum humanum.”

This review could continue to list examples of Kean’s intelligent, enlightening, and entertaining prose. But editorial constraints require me to stop writing. Besides, I’ve got an acrostic to find and solve.

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of 20 books for young readers. His most recent title, Meltdown! The Nuclear Disaster in Japan and Our Energy Future, is a Junior Library Guild Selection.