THE VIOLINIST’S THUMB: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code
Sam Kean has started to make a habit of taking scientific subjects that inhabit the outskirts of the popular imagination and reintroducing them with healthy doses of history and humanity. In “The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World From the Periodic Table of the Elements,’’ he brought readers inside the stories of the scientists who forged our understanding of the elements.
Now, in “The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code,’’ he takes us on an extended tour of DNA — both the seemingly miraculous ways in which it operates and the long (and continuing) scientific odyssey, full of dead ends, to unravel its mysteries.
The book is divided into four sections, although the organization is a bit loose given Kean’s tendency to jump back and forth (quite deftly) between history and explanatory reporting. After a first section explaining the basics of DNA and how it works, the next three cover “Our Animal Past,” the evolutionary adaptations that led to humankind, and the past, present, and future of DNA research.
Given these sorts of ambitions, “The Violinist’s Thumb’’ could have easily dissolved into an incomprehensible goop of telemerase and transcription errors and the like. Luckily, Kean is very interested in human beings — not just the building blocks that help build and define them — and is a very lively writer. So while the occasional passage of scientific exposition can be hard to grasp without a couple of passes, Kean makes up for it with a generous helping of wild human stories — some of them about the scientific figures helping us inch toward a better understanding of our own back story, and some simply about remarkable (and in many cases, remarkably sad) examples of the impact of our genetic heritage on certain individuals.
Take, for instance, Tsutomu Yamaguchi, the only person who was exposed to and survived both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear blasts. And the band of arctic explorers who learned a grim lesson about the limits of our ability to process vitamin A when they butchered and ate the liver of a polar bear. Perhaps most disturbingly, there is the Russian biologist Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov, who tried to curry Josef Stalin’s favor by breeding a human and a chimp into a “humanzee.” Fortunately circumstances conspired to stop him.
Toward the end of the book, Kean looks a bit toward the future. We are, after all, well into the age of genetic panic. Cloning is a prime example. Writing about Dolly, the first successfully cloned animal, Kean notes that “human beings fear clones almost instinctively. Post-Dolly, some people hatched sensational supposes about clone armies goose-stepping through foreign capitals, or ranches where people would raise clones to harvest organs.” Kean is skeptical of the apocalyptic rhetoric, but he’s no biotech utopian; he counsels caution and deliberation across the board.
Computing, though, is an area where DNA seems to have surprising potential. While there are still many kinks to be worked out, the idea of a DNA-based computer is quite appealing to researchers. “[Y]ou can understand the buzz,” writes Kean. “One gram of DNA can store the equivalent of a trillion CDs, which makes our laptops look like the gymnasium-sized behemoths of yesteryear.”
Anyone reading this fine book could be excused for jolting upright at this point, for asking with wide-eyed amazement: Is there anything DNA can’t do?