The Violinist’s Thumb – Sam Kean

As usual, the actual contents of this Netgalley book came as a bit of a surprise – really? I requested a book about DNA? How unusual. And it is, very; I like a book which will feed me good solid science which has been cut into easily digested pieces rather than either handed to me whole or reduced to baby food, but I haven’t read one in some time.

The fact that I was thinking of polar bear livers while typing that last sentence is an indication of how well this book has done its job.

Do I now understand all there is to know about DNA and genetics?


Oh, sorry. I was laughing too hard to type there for a minute. Because – No: I’m still an idiot in the world of science. I am now able to parrot the fact of, say, A-T and C-G pairings, and I have a tenuous grasp on what it means, but for me the general feeling is much like I remember from high school science, when I learned that color wasn’t what I thought it was and that water is part of everything, even the most solid and desiccated of objects, on a cellular level. Information like that fights with my worldview. I understand the words on a theoretical level, like phasers and tribbles. It’s the practical science that escapes me.

My liver: NOT to be eaten with fava beans and a nice Chianti

Which in no way is to detract from Mr. Kean’s book. It’s excellent. It’s a joy. The fault, dear reader, lies not in my book but in myself, I’m sorry to say.

But I do know a whole heck of a lot more than I did when I started, and – more importantly – I understand a whole heck of a lot more than I did when I started. As for what I still don’t understand … well, Mr. Kean did not leave me feeling like the idiot I am, despite the fact that he explained as clearly and simply – and, often, humorously – as any human being could. And every page was painted with the wonder Mr. Kean obviously still finds in science. If all teachers managed to demonstrate this sense of wonder into their lessons, the world would be a smarter place.

And in between and around the bits that refuse to compute, there was a tremendous amount of information I could happily wallow in. I had no idea of the gravity of the reasons behind keeping pregnant women away from kitty litter – and really, it is serious, don’t go anywhere near it. It never occurred to me that there could be people who survived the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki both, and no real concept of what that did to them. I never knew the quirky biographies of Darwin and Mendel, Thomas Hunt Morgan, Watson and Crick, or any of the other madmen that fills these pages. And of course the title condition, that which made Niccolò Paganini what he was, which allowed him speed and flexibility that led his listeners to believe he had traded in his soul for them – a beautiful piece of forensic diagnosis, and such fun to read. The humor never gets in the way of the learning, but – as with all the best teachers – facilitates it. It’s wonderful.


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