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on 21 July 2012
*A full executive-style summary of this book is now available at the website newbooksinbrief dot wordpress dot com.

In a sense the story of DNA has two strands. On the one hand, as the blueprint of all that lives and the mechanism of heredity, DNA tells the story of life (and the history of life), from the smallest, simplest microbe, to we human beings, who have managed to figure all of this out. Of course, there is still much about DNA that we don't know. But given that we didn't even know of its existence until a lowly Swiss physician and biologist named Friedrich Miescher stumbled upon it in the 1860's, you have to admit we've come a long way in such a short time. And this is just where the second strand of the story of DNA begins: the story of our unraveling the mystery. While perhaps not as grandiose as the story of life itself, this detective story is significant in its own right, for it has transformed how we understand all that lives--including ourselves. This is especially the case given that the latest chapters in this story have revealed not only our own genomic blueprint, but the (deeply daunting) fact that we have the power to change this blueprint and thus became the masters of our own future as a species. While each of the strands of the story of DNA could fill a book in their own right (if not several), the author Sam Kean has managed to weave the two together and fit them both in his new book `The Violinist's Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code'. Kean's project may seem like a particularly tall task, but he manages to pull it off by way of focusing in on only the main (and/or juiciest) moments and characters throughout.

Kean divides his tome into four parts. The first part explores the basics of DNA and heredity, and the earliest discoveries thereof. Here we are introduced to the aforementioned Miescher, as well as Gregor Mendel, who teased out the basic laws of heredity using his famed peas. We also learn of Thomas Hunt Morgan and his team of eccentric lab assistants who managed to marry Mendelism (genetics) with Darwinism (evolution by natural selection) to develop the theory of genetic evolution, which stands as the main pillar of modern biology. We also learn about genetic mutations and how these glitches are the key to evolution. Sadly, these glitches also have their downside, which we witness through the story of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who had the terrible misfortune of being in the blast area of both of the nuclear bombs that the US dropped on Japan at the end of WWII.

Part II of the book explores DNA's role in the beginnings and evolution of life. In particular, Kean focuses on the major leaps in evolution, from the first microbes, to microbes with complex internal specialization, to multi-celled organisms with specialized cells (which includes all plants and animals), to mammals, to primates, to us. All of this may sound very technical, but Kean manages to keep the story lively with tales of northern seafarers encountering angry polar bears (and learning that biting into their innards can be just as deadly as them biting into yours), and Soviet scientists embarking on a project to create humanzees (yes, that's a cross between a human and a chimpanzee).

Part III of the book turns to human DNA in particular, and what sets us apart as a species. Here we learn how our DNA reveals that our species has passed through several genetic bottlenecks--meaning there have been numerous occasions where our numbers have dwindled to near-extinction levels, with the latest bottleneck occurring as little as 70,000 years ago. This has left us with far less genetic diversity than most other species, including our closest living relatives, the chimps (compared to whom we also have two less chromosomes). We also learn about some of the genes that have contributed to the evolution of our big brains--the one thing that separates us most as a species. Finally, we learn about the role that DNA plays in our peculiar attraction to art.

The fourth and final part of the book gets into the intricacies of the structure of DNA, and how our unraveling these intricacies (through the work of Watson and Crick, and the Human Genome Project) has allowed us to manipulate life forms. While these discoveries have opened up enormous opportunities, they have also led to some very poignant questions about just how we should be using this knowledge--especially when it comes to ourselves and our own species. As our knowledge of DNA increases (currently at a rate that exceeds Moore's Law) these questions will only become more pressing moving forward.

Given the remarkably wide range of his subject matter, Kean's work runs the risk of becoming as tangled and sprawling as a string of DNA. However, the author does manage to keep the sprawl to a minimum (for the most part). Also, the science does get a bit thorny at times (the odd visual would have helped), but again, Kean mostly succeeds in making some very complex science easy to understand; what's more, Kean's clever and very down to earth use of language adds some nice flavor to the dish. A full executive-style summary of the book is now available at the website newbooksinbrief dot wordpress dot com; a podcast discussion of the book will be available soon.
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VINE VOICEon 13 January 2013
I readily admit to being a bit of a science geek. That’s not to say I’m good at science – I actually have to work very hard to understand the concepts – but I love science books, particularly ones that show science in more ‘human’ terms. The Violinist’s Thumb is one such book. Kean takes the history and science behind DNA and our study of it so far and uses it to show – in very real terms – what the human consequences are.

Particularly fascinating – to me – was the story behind a parasite that can infect cat owners (contracted via litter). It affects around a third of humans but some to extremes, so much so that this might be one potential physiological explanation for some instances of cat hoarding.

The book looks at some aspects of the historical study of DNA and the conclusions – both correct and incorrect – that pave the way to further theories and knowledge. Added to that an introduction to some of the characteristics, flaws and merits of the scientists themselves and this is far from a dry tome on scientific theory.

The Violinist’s Thumb provides a remarkable insight into this incredible area of knowledge and research, one that still has a long way to go. Kean writes with passion, humour and insight that makes this an excellent read.

**I received a copy of this title from Netgalley in exchange for my fair and honest review.**
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DNA. It's in all of us but did you know it tells a story? Both of the human race and its own story of discovery. The Violinist's Thumb is not only an introduction to the science of DNA but a trip through history from Mendel to the Human Genome Project and Neanderthals to crazy cat people.

My knowledge of DNA comes from high school biology, Jurassic Park and numerous crime shows and books, so I'm by no means in a position to understand high-brow scientific tomes. Instead, Sam Kean manages to entertain and educate. The conversational tone dips into more technical territory now and then but just as you think it's about to go over your head, it returns to an amusing anecdote. I fell I have a better understanding of how DNA works and how it's shaped us as humans.

I learned so many fascinating facts. That there could be a biological reason that otherwise sane people turn into crazy cat hoarders; toxoplasma gondii (a parasite caught from cats) will release dopamine into the brain when the infected individual smells cat pee. So cats make them happy. The case study here, were a couple that held the world record for most cats in one home; 689! I could go on all day about the things I picked up but I need to leave some for you to discover yourself.

What is often left out of scientific history, are the people behind the discoveries. We may know all about Mendel's peas but not that his research was destroyed because of his politics and not his science (I'm pretty sure his fellow monks were appreciative of his pea improvement). It's also quite common for geneticists to try and explain historical figures through their genes, what does Einstein's brain say about his genius? And there was a wonderful section about Toulouse-Lautrec, whilst his family's inbreeding was tragic, his disadvantages probably led to his art. Just as a genetic condition blessed and blighted the title's inspiration, virtuoso violinist, Niccolò Paganini.

My only grumble was a couple of errors that should have been picked up by an editor. We cannot possibly be 8% not human and only 2% human; that just doesn't add up. I know that the author meant 8% virus DNA and 2% unique to human DNA, but it wasn't worded that way and for a scientist, maths should be important. There was another similar thing, where he stated "virtually all animals" and then excluded all mammals in the same sentence. Virtually all would imply mammals to most of us, would it not? There may have been other slip-ups but these were surrounded in paragraphs that included things I wanted to quote and realised they didn't make sense when I looked more closely. The fact that I still think this a five star read, shows you how much I got out of it.
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on 10 April 2013
For me this book offers a superb perspective: Really gets you thinking about so many things and challenges archetypal routes.
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on 29 December 2014
This was a present requested by my daughter and she was delighted with it. She is a musician and appreciates the stories.
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on 21 October 2013
Really interesting account of where genetics is at now. Suitable for general reader with an interest in the topic. Anecdotal style makes for easy reading.
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