Book review

The Violinist’s Thumb and Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius as Written by Our Genetic Code
by Sam Kean, 401 pages, hardcover, CAN$28.99, ISBN 978-0-316-18231-7

Sam Kean has written a deliciously fascinating book in The Violinist’s Thumb. The fascination comes from the fact that it is a book about us, or at least our DNA, the deliciousness because of Kean’s easy writing style and fantastic sense of humour. Don’t skip the introduction or forget the epilogue. The introduction will explain the title and provide direction for the rest of the book; the epilogue can offer some introspection and interesting questions for one’s self.

Whether or not your background is in biology, Kean’s writing is mesmerizing. The depth of research is riveting because he has successfully pulled together both the historical and scientific stories about the discovery of DNA and eventually the assembling of the human genome. Those with a biology background will have the pleasure of marveling at this achievement with greater depth and insight. But regardless of your science strength The Violinist’s Thumb will give you a greater level of understanding of the Human Genome and leave you in awe of the molecular gymnastics that DNA and the numerous other molecules undergo in performing replication.

The Violinist’s Thumb is divided into four broad sections with numerous chapters. Each chapter has a historical or scientific hook to draw you in. Kean writes these vignettes so cleverly you might not realize you are reading a science-related book. For example, the book presents the historical backgrounds to Mendel, Darwin and Meischer: a description of the fascinating race between Venter and the National Institute of Health and the NIH’s Genome Project. As well, Kean tells the stories behind Einstein’s brain and the failed “Humanzee” Project. Numerous case histories are highlighted, such as the Japanese man who survived both atomic bomb blasts, the intrepid explorers who died from eating polar bear liver and the case of a baby born with a form of blood cancer inherited from the mother. All of these stories and those of historical figures are fully painted and superbly expressed.

The chemist will find particularly fascinating how the simple methyl or acetyl attachments to DNA can turn genes on or off and play a role in heredity. Kean also has a humorous description of the creation of hydrogen bonds in the DNA molecule. As well, there is no end of well-documented biochemical reactions.

For those with a double dose of X, you can take heart in the book on several levels. First, the X is the significantly more dominant chromosome compared with the puny Y, which seems to have shrunk during evolution. But more important for the double X-ers, is the number of women scientists Kean highlights, who contributed significantly to the development of the structure of DNA. Biographies include Nobel-winning Barbara McClintock plus her predecessors Lynn Margulis and Sister Miriam Michael Stimson. Kean devotes considerable time to their outstanding work.

The Violinist’s Thumb is a joy to read because it is so closely linked to each of us: who we are now, where we came from and where we are heading. Kean challenges us to decide if we would be like Watson, who blocked some of the information about DNA that worried him, or like Venter, who placed no restriction on his approach to DNA. Should we attempt to find out what makes us tick? Should we take our clock to a jeweller only to find out when and how it is likely to break down? Do we want to know?

Read The Violinist’s Thumb. If nothing else, you will learn the comparative percentages of your DNA that are viral and human; you will read about how we evolved our meat-eating gene; and you will learn about how the parasite, toxo, hijacked into our DNA, which can explain some people’s quirky behaviour around cats. Besides the sheer enjoyment, you will marvel at the resilience of the scientific mind and the brilliance of biologists. You will be better for the knowledge, insight and the historical past of DNA.

[Sam Kean will be a featured plenary speaker at the ChemEd 2013 conference. Many chemistry teachers will know his first science book, The Disappearing Spoon.]