Skip to main content

The Violinist’s Thumb – Sam Kean ****

I was a great fan of Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon, so it was excellent to see a followup in The Violinist’s Thumb. The violinist in question was Paganini who had a genetic disorder that enabled him to bend his thumb back far beyond the usual limit. And this is an indirect hint about the subject of the book – DNA and our genetic code.
This is, without doubt, a very good book. A quote from New Scientist on the front compares Sam Kean’s writing to that of Bill Bryson – I think this delusional, and possibly a little unfair on Kean. I’d say he is, as a pure writer, better than Bryson, but lacks Bryson’s superb comic touch. Kean attempts humour, but it certainly isn’t up to Bryson – the comparison just doesn’t make sense. The good news is that once again Kean has brought an aspect of science alive with a ton of excellent anecdotes about the individuals involved, in this case in everything from studying the fruit flies that form the fingerprint on the cover of the book to cracking our genetic code in the Human Genome Project.
Along the with, if, like me, you aren’t a biologist you will certainly learn plenty. It might seem trivial but the best thing I went away with was the realisation that in DNA’s base pairs it’s easy to remember that A goes with T and C with G, because the curved letters go together and the straight ones similarly. However, I simply didn’t enjoy it as much as Disappearing Spoon. That book was a page turner that I couldn’t wait to get back to – this was a bit of plough through experience.
This is mostly not Kean’s fault (except for the fact the book is too long, but that might have been imposed on him). It’s the subject. It simply doesn’t have the variety that arose from looking at different elements – here you are on the same single subject throughout. And sometimes, because of this, the entertaining side stories weren’t helpful because I lost track of the theme they interrupted. I also found that because it is a single topic, I really wanted a lot more depth, but Kean continues to skip on, focussing on storytelling not content, telling us things without really explaining them. On a technical issue I would also say that Kean leaves epigenetics too late and should have integrated it more into the rest – as it stands its importance really doesn’t come across.
Overall it’s an excellent book – highly readable and with lots of great stories. It’s just that Kean’s style isn’t quite as suited to this topic as it was to the elements, and so this title is rather overshadowed by its predecessor.
Hardback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

De/Cipher - Mark Frary ****

I was a little doubtful when I first saw this book. Although it has the intriguing tagline 'The greatest codes ever invented and how to crack them' the combination of a small format hardback and gratuitous illustrations made me suspect it would be a lightweight, minimal content, Janet and John approach to codes and ciphers. Thankfully, in reality Mark Frary manages to pack a remarkable amount of content into De/Cipher's slim form.

Not only do we get some history on and instructions to use a whole range of ciphers, there are engaging little articles on historical codebreakers and useful guidance on techniques to break the simpler ciphers. The broadly historical structure takes the reader through basic alphabetic manipulation, keys, electronic cryptography, one time pads and so on, all the way up to modern public key encryption and a short section on quantum cryptography. 

We even get articles on some of the best known unsolved ciphers, such as the Dorabella and the Voynich ma…

Paul McAuley - Four Way Interview

Paul McAuley won the Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel and has gone on to win the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy, Sidewise and John W. Campbell Awards. He gave up his position as a research biologist to write full-time. He lives in London. His latest novel is Austral.


Why science fiction?

For one thing, I fell in love with science fiction at an early age, and haven’t yet fallen out of love with it (although I have flirted with other genres). For another, we’re living in an increasingly science-fictional present. Every day brings headlines that could have been ripped from a science-fiction story. Giant robot battle: Who knew a duel between chainsaw-armed mech suits could be so boring? for instance. Or, Roy Orbison hologram to embark on UK tour in 2018. And looming above all this, like Hokusai’s famous wave, are the ongoing changes caused by global warming and climate change, which is just one consequence of human activity having become the dominant force of change on the planet…

Karl Drinkwater - Four Way Interview

Karl Drinkwater is originally from Manchester, but has lived in Wales half his life. He is a full-time author, edits fiction for other writers and was a professional librarian for over twenty-five years. He has degrees in English, Classics and Information Science. When he isn't writing, he loves exercise, guitars, computer and board games, the natural environment, animals, social justice, cake and zombies - not necessarily in that order. His latest novel is Lost Solace.

Why science fiction?

My favourite books have always been any form of speculative fiction. As a child I began with ghost stories, which were the first books to make me completely forget I was reading. By my teenage years I was obsessed with fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Although I read literary and contemporary books, non-fiction, historical works, classics and so on, it is speculative fiction that I return to when I want escape and wonder. When I read reviews of my last book, the fast-paced novella Harvest Fe…