The Violinist’s Thumb Book Summary - The Violinist’s Thumb Book explained in key points

The Violinist’s Thumb summary

Sam Kean

And Other Lost Tales of Love, War and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code

4.7 (16 ratings)
16 mins

Brief summary

The Violinist's Thumb by Sam Kean is a fascinating book about the genetic stories hidden within DNA. It explores how genes influence everything from evolution to disease and illuminates how small changes lead to big differences in our lives.

Table of Contents

    The Violinist’s Thumb
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    The groundwork for genetics was laid by two unrecognized scientists in the 1860s.

    In Tübingen, Germany in the 1860s, Swiss biologist Friedrich Miescher was hard at work studying white blood cells at the behest of his mentor, Felix Hoppe-Seyler.

    After analyzing the white blood cells gleaned from pus in hospital bandages, Miescher discovered an entirely new kind of substance: deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA.

    Unfortunately for Miescher, nobody appreciated the importance of this discovery at the time. Even Hoppe-Seyler only mockingly lauded him for “enhancing our understanding of pus.”

    Meanwhile, not 400 miles away from Miescher’s lab, a monk by the name of Gregor Mendel was pursuing agricultural experiments to increase crop yields.

    Mendel was studying the heritability of traits in the common pea plant because the plant seemed binary in many of its traits: for example, it either produced yellow or green peas, and had either long or short stalks, but nothing in between. This made experimentation simpler.

    Through his experiments, Mendel discovered first of all that when plants with opposing traits, say yellow and green peas, were crossed, the end result was never a mix of the two. This alone was significant, since scientists had always assumed the traits would blend together into a yellowish/greenish pea.

    What’s more, Mendel found that some traits were dominant, while others were recessive. In the case of peas, yellow color was dominant, meaning that when purebred yellow peas were crossed with purebred green ones, the offspring in the second generation were all yellow.

    However, in the third generation of plants, Mendel found that one out of every four plants did have green peas again, so it seemed the recessive green gene lurked in the background even though it wasn’t visible.

    Finally, Mendel also found that the traits were separate from each other: one plant could have the dominant yellow pea trait and the recessive short stalk trait. Though he didn’t use the term “gene,” this is basically what Mendel had discovered: discrete, separate factors that controlled traits.

    Disappointingly, the scientific community didn’t recognize the importance of these findings in Mendel’s time.

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    What is The Violinist’s Thumb about?

    The Violinist’s Thumb is an exploration into DNA, the double-helix of life itself. The following blinks chronicle the scientific discoveries that led us to understand DNA and the major role it’s played in the emergence of life on earth.

    Who should read The Violinist’s Thumb?

    • Anyone interested in genetics, evolution and the origin of life on earth
    • Anyone interested in the scientific discoveries that have led us to understand the importance of our DNA
    • Anyone interested in what the future of genetic engineering may hold

    About the Author

    Sam Kean is an American writer whose stories have been featured in publications like The New Scientist, New York Times Magazine and Psychology Today. His previous book, The Disappearing Spoon, was a bestseller and named one of Amazon’s top five science books of 2012.

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