Review | The Violinist’s Thumb – Sam Kean

A hardback copy of the book The Violinsts Thumb.
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Biology is a conspicuous weak spot in my knowledge. My psychology education taught me a little about neurons, neurotransmitters, and brain structure. Beyond that, my main biological knowledge is trivia about platypi. So I read The Violinist’s Thumb less to learn about specific topics than to better understand how all these concepts of DNA, genes, cells and chromosomes related to each other.

The introduction sets up a powerful tension between the  scientific value gained by understanding DNA and the fears thrown up by confronting our genetic building blocks. From there, we discover the parallel stories of Gregor Mendel and Friedrich Miescher, who first isolated genes and DNA. Using these building blocks of genes, Kean leads readers towards larger structures such as chromosomes, viruses, humans, and human cultures.

I enjoyed the sections which compared how we describe DNA with how we describe language. Scientists talk about DNA using the language of…. well, language. DNA letters make phrases, which combine into sentences. DNA errors are also  linguistic; from biological typos and deletions to transcription errors and faulty copy-pastes. 

As well as linguistic analogies, Kean offers up plenty of other ways to make sense of DNA. He explains its links to music, to computing, and to the niche mathematical topic of knot theory. His eclectic approach means almost every reader should find an explanation that resonates with them. But holding them together and trying to think about all those abstractions and analogies simultaneously could feel confusing, like I had been handed pieces from three different puzzles at once.

I’ve enjoyed Kean’s previous books The Tale of The Duelling Neurosugeons and The Disappearing Spoon, and I was expecting to see more of his colloquial, comic signature style here. Kean didn’t disappoint. I found The Violinists Thumb easier to read for long stretches than The Disappearing Spoon, and more forgiving for readers with limited background knowledge.

“McClintock worked with Indian corn, the kind speckled with red and blue and found on harvest floats in parades. She’d seen the jumping genes attack the arms of chromosomes inside these kernels, snapping them and leaving the ends dangling like a compound fracture. Whenever this happened, the kernels stopped producing pigment.”


Kean’s prose will occasionally send you running to a dictionary. Surprisingly for a science book, this isn’t due to scientific jargon, but because of Kean’s extensive lexicon of uncommon words and literary terms.  I enjoyed discovering interesting words like boustrophedon (a writing system that switches between left>right and right>left on each new line) and grawlix (the string of punctuation used to replace swearing in comic-book speech bubbles), but I sometimes found explanations that stumbled if I didn’t understand a reference point. However, this only happened occasionally; most explanations were clear and informative without veering into detail-overload.

During the book Kean introduces many interesting researchers, from celebrated figures like Thomas Morgan and his team of fruit-fly investigators, to underdogs such as Miriam Stimson and Barbara McClintock. I appreciate that Kean never lauds himself for including female scientists, or presents any forced-feeling mentions of why they need to be included. He simply includes people with stories worth telling. Similarly, he avoids many of the traps and tropes of other media coverage about scientists. He discusses eccentric characters without stereotyping all scientists as Frankenstein’s protégés.

The middle of the book scales up from humans to humanity, and discusses humanity’s collective near-death experiences. Bottlenecks like the Tambora volcano, which reduced humanity down to a few thousand adults, show a neglected side of history. The idea that humans are lucky creatures, rather than conquering creatures, needs more airtime. When Kean discusses individuals like Einstein, King George III, and the titular violinist Niccolo Paganini, he further challenges how we think about humans. For example, discussing Einstein’s brain makes space for the question of whether people should try to explain behaviours and traits through brain wiring alone.

Finally, I was surprised by the history of the Human Genome Project, and the conflicts between Government-funded research and maverick geneticist Craig Venter. I’ve only ever heard about the HGP in hindsight as a success: I had no idea about the rivalries which ran through it. This story, alongside examples of scientists squabbling over Abraham Lincoln’s and Tutankhamen’s potential diagnoses,  adds a valuable counterweight to Kean’s usual enthusiasm for scientific progress.

Conclusion

Initially, The Violinist’s Thumb held my interest less than Duelling Neurosurgeons did, although that was from my personal preference of topics rather than any quality differences. But the later chapters on medical stories, epigenetics, and the Human Genome Project, elevated the book from good to fascinating. They showed off Kean’s breadth and depth of knowledge, and his ability to switch time periods and topics fluidly.

Its easy to sidetrack me with new ideas and tangents, so this book’s breadth is both a benefit and a minor drawback. New ideas, concepts, and tales appear rapidly, so my interest sparks continually even when it overtakes my understanding. I want to know what happens next before I’ve finished understanding what’s happening now.

Overall, The Violinist’s Thumb is filled with detailed information and entertaining stories about a wide range of biological and historical topics. This book definitely requires a second (or third) pass to fully understand, because it offers so much information and so many ideas. I paused many times just to say “oh, that’s how that works” in surprise, while after finishing the book I wanted to tell people what I had learnt.

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