Our genes can be likened to a story, and the gray, sticky paste of DNA is the language in which the story is written, according to Sam Kean, author of The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code. Kean relates the history and function of DNA and genes and their effect on collective and individual human development.
Watson, Crick, and Mendel are familiar names linked to DNA and gene theory but few people have heard of Thomas Hunt Morgan and his assistant, ladies’ man Calvin Bridges, or Catholic Sister Miriam Michael Stimson. Kean fleshes out years of tedious research undertaken by lesser-known scientists that paved the way for the award-winning discoveries. RNA, DNA palindromes, Y chromosomes, and mitochondria—all hard science terms that could prove overwhelming—are balanced by Kean with humor and relatable anecdotes. DNA injury and resiliency is illustrated by the case of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, a man unfortunate enough to be exposed to the bomb detonation in Hiroshima, who then travelled to Nagasaki in time to be blasted again.
The Violinist’s Thumb refers to virtuoso Niccolo Paganini, whose musical gifts were, in part, due to a genetic error inhibiting his body’s ability to produce collagen; his disease allowed him to stretch his hands to perform amazing violin feats. Unfortunately it also contributed to his poor health and early demise. Kean explains how cat hoarding behavior can be linked to careless litter box cleaning, and cautions the reader to avoid eating a polar bear’s liver should you find yourself stranded at the North Pole. The book ends by raising thorny questions about cloning and the implications of analyzing a single person’s genome. Readers who enjoy popular science writing, such as Mary Roach’s Stiff, will find a winner in The Violinist’s Thumb.