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A Recommendation and Some Questions About 'The Violinist's Thumb'
August 19, 2012 - 9:00pm

The Violinist's Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code by Sam Kean

Published in July of 2012.

The Violinist's Thumb does for DNA what Sam Kean's first book, The Disappearing Spoon, did for the periodic table. He is able to transform what could be difficult and dry scientific concepts into compelling narratives driven by a series of larger than life personalities.  

This form of science writing may not work for everyone, as the reader needs to bring a healthy dose of curiosity as well as some patience as Kean unwinds his stories. But if you are willing to follow Kean through his (many) diversions, you will come away with a rich understanding of both the science of DNA, as well as the path in which the great genetic discoveries were made.

The task of telling the scientific story behind our genes, and the historical story of how the science of genetics came into existence, must have seemed daunting to Kean.  For the most part he succeeds in both efforts. 

I finished The Violinist's Thumb with a clearer picture of the biology of DNA and the role that genetics plays in explaining behavior. My grasp of the timeline of our major genetic discoveries, from Mendel to Darwin to Watson and Crick to Venter is on more solid ground. The story of Mendel's garden to the human genome project is perhaps the most important scientific narrative of the modern world, and the success of The Violinist's Thumb in placing both the science and the history into an accessible and entertaining one-volume format should be applauded.

Whenever I read a terrific nonfiction book aimed at non-specialists, particularly a science book, I always wonder (and ask you) about what place these books could and should have within our curriculum. I have no doubt that a book like The Violinist's Thumb would encourage some people who never thought that studying biology and genetics would be interesting to change their minds. Science majors would benefit from understanding the history of the disciplines in which they are studying.  

But who would assign reading like The Violinist's Thumb? In how many biology courses could enough time be made to have everyone read and discuss the entire book? Would a non-academic book, written by a journalist rather than a historian or social scientist, make it on to the syllabi of our history or sociology of science courses? Do you have some examples of when popular science writing has made it into our coursework?

What are you reading?


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