The Violinist’s Thumb

It seems that not a day passes without DNA being in the news somewhere. This molecule can determine guilt or innocence, identify bodies, reveal the possibility of having many diseases, and can reveal the past histories of organisms, including human beings. The progress that science has made in studying genetics and that molecule that keeps our genetic information is all the more remarkable when you consider that only a century ago, little was known about the subject and biology was in a state of disorder, trying to reconcile the concepts of Darwin’s theory of evolution and Mendel’s discoveries of inheritable characteristic called genes.

Sam Kean tells the story of DNA in his book The Violinist’s Thumb with the same skill and flair as he did with the periodic table in The Disappearing Spoon. This is no dry text on biochemistry, but a fascinating history of the discovery of DNA and its role in genetics, meeting many interesting, and some eccentric characters along the way. The story begins with the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel and his experiments with pea plants. He did more than gardening and was something of an embarrassment to the monastery he was to serve as abbot. At about the same time, there was Johannes Friedrich Miescher who discovered DNA in pus soaked bandages and salmon semen. There was Thomas Hunt Morgan who studied the heredity of fruit flies in his “fly room” and discovered that genes are carried on chromosomes. There is even a mad scientist, Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov, who sought to create a human-chimpanzee hybrid with the help of the Soviet government.


One of the greatest scientific accomplishments of recent years is the Human Genome Project, the ambitious project to sequence the entire human genome. As Sam Kean shows, this was not a model of scientific and rational work, but an intense competition or race between two teams, one financed by the Department of Energy and National Institutes of Health, the other a private venture led by Craig Venter. With the competition between the two teams, the project was finished well ahead of schedule, but biologists are still sorting out what it all means. Among the more unexpected discoveries is that a certain percentage of our DNA was actually contributed by viruses.

With the completion of the Human Genome Project, and some personal notes by Mr. Kean, the book ends. The story of DNA in ongoing and who can tell where the latest discoveries will lead us. Perhaps Kean will be able to write a sequel or second edition in about ten years or so.

The Disappearing Spoon

Cover of "The Disappearing Spoon: And Oth...
Cover via Amazon

Like many people who have taken a high school science class, I have seen the old, familiar periodic table of the elements hanging on a classroom wall on in the back of the chemistry textbook. I sometimes looked at that table, wondering about the strange letters and numbers on it. Obviously, H stood for hydrogen and O for oxygen, and C for carbon, but why Fe for iron, or Sn for tin and Au for gold? What was an atomic number and what was its relation to atomic weight? Little did I know that behind the periodic table were stories of mystery, adventure, and romance?


Sam Kean tells these stories in his wonderful book, The Disappearing Spoon. He takes the reader up and down the table with stories of elemental discoveries, their differing properties and their impact on the course of history. We learn of the invention of the table, usually attributed to Dmitri Mendeleev, though the story is a little more complicated. We learn of the hunt for elements to fill in the empty spaces and some of the deadly consequences of the discovery of the radioactive elements. How the elements changed the course of history and the results of wars. In the final chapter Kean goes above and beyond the familiar table to introduce the reader to newly discovered exotic forms of matter that might require a periodic table all their own.


Overall, Sam Kean does a marvelous job taking what might be considered a dry and dull table of symbols and numbers and bringing it to life.  The Disappearing Spoon was a joy to read.