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Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Review: The Violinist's Thumb

The Violinist's Thumb is a collection of science essays about various aspects of DNA and our genetic heritage. The essays are individually well written, and each is a lot of fun to read. I was worried that the book would rehash many of the other gene related books I'd already read, but mostly it focuses on less well-known scientists.

I loved the stories about polar explorers eating polar bear livers and nearly getting killed by it. (Bear liver contains a huge amount of vitamin A, which is toxic in those doses) The other memorable ones include the title story about Paganini's thumb (which was both strong and flexible) which gave him the ability to perform feats on the violin few others could, but which was associated with other genetic inheritances which caused him no small amount of health problems. I also didn't know about the inbreeding in certain families (such as Charles Darwin's) which also led to some genetic diseases that they suffered from.

Finally, the story about Craig Venter and the race to map the human genome (and how we seemed to have gotten very few useful results despite how important it seemed) is told, and when it reveals how few genes humans have (around 20,000) and how little genetic diversity humans have (which makes the huge difference between individual humans even more amazing) was well told, though a little bit more inside baseball than I wanted to know.

All in all, well-written, easy to read, and fun. Recommended.

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