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Publisher's Summary

From New York Times best-selling author Sam Kean come more incredible stories of science, history, language, and music, as told by our own DNA.

In The Disappearing Spoon, best-selling author Sam Kean unlocked the mysteries of the periodic table. In The Violinist's Thumb, he explores the wonders of the magical building block of life: DNA.

There are genes to explain crazy cat ladies, why other people have no fingerprints, and why some people survive nuclear bombs. Genes illuminate everything from JFK's bronze skin (it wasn't a tan) to Einstein's genius. They prove that Neanderthals and humans bred thousands of years more recently than any of us would feel comfortable thinking. They can even allow some people, because of the exceptional flexibility of their thumbs and fingers, to become truly singular violinists.

Kean's vibrant storytelling once again makes science entertaining, explaining human history and whimsy while showing how DNA will influence our species' future.

©2012 Sam Kean; 2012 Hachette Audio

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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  • Traci
  • VERNON, NJ, United States
  • 08-18-12

So much to think about!

"The Violinists Thumb" was awesome. I ended up having to take notes because it was so thought provoking. This book isn't a light read. If you have no foundation of dna and genes this might not be a great first. The narrator was tolerable and well suited for this type of book.

8 of 8 people found this review helpful

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Fascinating and Understandable

This book is aimed at fans of "true science" books, and follows the basic formula: Interesting anecdotes interspersed with challenging factoids, with bits of history mixed in and some personal sharing by the author. This is a very well written example of the genre, using clear language and telling me lots I didn't know before. It is smoothly read by Leyva, who correctly pronounces just about everything, easy to listen too without being intrusive.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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Great book, but I really need the visuals

This is a great book, but (through no fault of the author) I couldn't do it justice trying to listen to it as an audiobook. My knowledge of biology and genetics isn't good enough for that, and I'm going to re-read this once I get my hands on a hardcover copy. I need to see all those G-C and A-T pairings!

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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a Magnum Opus

Would you consider the audio edition of The Violinist's Thumb to be better than the print version?

Only in terms of ease of access while driving or heading off to sleep at night is it superior. Missing are the pertinent illustrations that might lend to clarification, but this is only a small impediment. Overall it is a better work in audible format, mainly due to the elegant and perfectly timed narration of Henry Leyva portraying San Keene's finest work yet.

What was one of the most memorable moments of The Violinist's Thumb?

The odd Russian era of almost creating human/chimpanzee outcrosses= humanzees. Read the book to find out if it ever really happened.

Which scene was your favorite?

Description of Nicolo Paganini's more flexible dexterity feats under the assumption that he may have had Ehler's Danloss Syndrome. Of course, a complete explanation of every genetic quirk and misfire of a whole range of genetic aberrations is well explained throughout the entire book. Understanding what goes wrong is how we advance in this detailed and salient field of work.

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

Exploring the genetic minglings of the physically sorrowful Hapsurb dynasty. And of course the moving passages about what happened to Einstein's brain after his death. Keene makes historical figures come to life in all cases.

Any additional comments?

Do not let terminology and vernacular turn you away. Wikipedia everything you don't understand, soak it all in and then run it a second time. This book makes one realize how many shoulders scientific discovery has stood upon, lifting its focus now into well understood human and Neanderthall genome sequencing and paleogenetics. This has been my favorite book ever via Audible.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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VERY INTERESTING non-fiction book on genes and DNA

THE VIOLINIST'S THUMB by Sam Kean is a fabously told non-fiction book about genes and DNA, expounding on the history, science and scientists, and varied discoveries of the make up of living beings. It's a great 'every man's' overview that is remarkably thorough in it's facts, and even more fantastic in it's ability to entertain.

So many things are discussed from why some people can survive atomic bombs to why there are hoarding cat people. The politics and infighting stories of the human genomes projects is as thrilling as any world history debates and wars. There are scientific studies of people from the past---what was the real truth about JFK's health; why was King George so crazy; and why were the Egyptian Pharos so misshapen. Perhaps one of the most interesting proven theories for me was Ziff's Law: the most common word in any language is used twice as much as the next most common word in that language in any book. The most common word is then used three times as much as the third most popular word, etc, until the least most common word.

This discussion of genetic make-up is not out to prove any particular point. Everything is discussed and the final conclusion remains that all living things are a combinations of multiple bits and pieces that makes everything unique and similar. Surely science will continue with this troublesome and fascination exploration for years to come. One big hope is to help cure and prevent devastating diseases.

Though I am not necessarily a non-fiction book reader for pleasure, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Were that all learning was this easy and entertaining!!! Now on to his first book on the chemical elements---THE DISAPPEARING SPOON. I hope Sam Kean has more books like this in his future!!

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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Fascinating science read

This book uses stories to illustrate the history and current understanding of genetics. I first heard about this book on Radio Lab, and this book uses the same kind of narrative style to engage listeners in serious science through compelling mysteries and human dramas. I would recommend it to other amateur science geeks.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Thomas
  • NAPERVILLE, IL, United States
  • 08-28-12

Amazing! If you love science you will love this!

Would you consider the audio edition of The Violinist's Thumb to be better than the print version?

No- You miss out on the small nuances and the illustrations- But very very good-

Who was your favorite character and why?

Character?<br/>Chapter 8 was so good that I listened to it 6 times in a row and I am not kidding

Have you listened to any of Henry Leyva’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

No

Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

I love science and this book makes me want to learn all over again-

Any additional comments?

I am reading excepts to my students (high-school teacher) and promoting the book to them as well-

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Jeffrey
  • Herndon, Virginia, United States
  • 02-25-13

No option to hear the notes

Where does The Violinist's Thumb rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

This book's included contents is very good with the exception that it is abridged as the notes for this book were rather informative and their excise was a great loss.

Who was your favorite character and why?

Paul Kammerer

Which scene was your favorite?

Epigenetics

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

Too long for that, but yeah, it'd have been nice.

Any additional comments?

I never had time to read the notes so I feel I missed something.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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I Need the Gene for Audiobook Selection

I actually expected "stories"and case studies linked to specific, or even odd, quirks in our DNA, "as written by our genetic code". You know, sort of like the Paganini story in the sample provided. I was not expecting tales of two thumbs, told circus sideshow-style, or anything like that. Just reasonable and readable anecdotes, sort of like Oliver Sachs' "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat".

Where is it written in our genetic code that we always try to market a product for the largest possible audience, instead of describing the product as it really is? And why doesn't this book match its title?

What I found here was chapter after chapter of history on DNA research, followed by chapter after chapter of technical and scientific studies and research assays. Too much for this reader to handle while doing other things. Audiobooks give me freedom to read while working out, while driving, walking, doing a myriad of other tasks while listening. Instead I had to reverse and fast-forward constantly in order to really "get" what was being said. I would have done better with a print version.

I think this book is too dry and technical for the general reader. It's a good book, well-written, well-narrated but mis-marketed, in my opinion. Perhaps the additional materials that are included with the print version would have helped, but without that, this book was like reading a textbook. And without the advertised support materials, an expensive one.

At first I disliked the author's description of his purchase, from one of the many lab services now available, a full genetic panel for himself. He cautioned the reader to check the boxes that would "hide" the results concerning percentages of likelihood of getting catastrophic diseases such as breast cancer, Alzheimer's, or Parkinson's, if said reader had these or any other serious or debilitating diseases in his/her family history. Why would you want to hide any results if you are going to pay upwards of $400 for a full genetic sequence? I didn't get it, and I still don't get why people try to protect themselves from knowing.

But, this author redeemed himself in my estimation by revisiting the lab's website that had originally displayed his results, after that website posted an message saying that updates were available, as new information had come in. He unchecked the "hide" box and received his percentages for the specific disease in which he was interested. So, over the course of writing the book he had had an epiphany of sorts. This is how it works.

My point is that the author's original position on receiving personal genetic profiling colored my reading of the book, and I became a bit judgmental. But I applauded the author when he finally revisited his profile. If you want to call this "spoiling", go ahead, but I would have enjoyed the book more if I hadn't spent many hours thinking of this author as a scientist with his head in the sand, an oxymoron IMO.

Anyway, if you are scientifically-minded or like the technical stuff, you'll like this. Just don't expect an anecdotal approach.

34 of 45 people found this review helpful

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  • Sean
  • BELVEDERE TIBURON, CA, United States
  • 08-19-12

A book about the history of DNA

Apparently, there was a violinist with a really strong thumb. It may or may not have had to do with his genes. That's the level of insight you can expect about "Lost Tales of Love, War and Genius."

The book is an excellent history of the science and discovery of DNA. He also talks about the controversies surrounding the human genome project. However, I was expecting more information about how our genes shape our behavior in interesting ways. Something like "so-and-so discovered an argument gene prevalent in lawyers..."

The performance is engaging and the history is complete but the book was not what I was expecting.

6 of 8 people found this review helpful