In 2010 Sam Kean debuted with The Disappearing Spoon: and other true tales of madness, love, and the history of the world from the periodic table of elements. He began with chemistry. In The Violinist’s Thumb he takes on DNA.
His talent lies in communicating his own passion for science and making science fun — and human. He tells stories about people. He uses whimsy and humor. Sounds like a match made in teen reader heaven. But don’t believe me – try a sample, or take a look at what he’s been up to this summer…
Kean has spent much of July “Blogging the Human Genome” on Slate.com. From Elizabeth Taylor’s eyelashes to cannibalism to “retrodiagnosing” the famous dead, much DNA research has focused on the past. In last Friday’s post, he concluded with the future, “In fact, the most profound change that genetics brings about might not be scientific at all. It might be mental and even spiritual enrichment: a more expansive sense of who we humans are, existentially, and where we came from, and how we fit with other life on earth. After delving deep, deep, deep into all aspects of human DNA, and uncovering so many stories about our past, that’s the genetic revolution I’m most excited about.”
Adult/High School–Kean begins this fascinating, witty, informative book with a disclaimer: “This is a book a about DNA… and yes, I’m writing this book despite the fact that my father’s name is Gene. As is my mother’s name. Gene and Jean.” But genes have never been more fascinating than here, where Kean gives the basics of genetic theory but spends most of the time telling stories. Readers learn about geneticists, from Gregor Mendel and Barbara McClintock to the “fly boys” who named fruit-fly genes for their characteristics, including names like groucho, smurf, tribble, armadillo, and ken and barbie (mutants with no genitalia). Readers also learn why not to eat polar-bear liver, how DNA permanently changed our view of Neanderthals, all about the Russian scientist who was convinced that he could breed chimps with humans and create humanzees, and why crazy cat ladies may in fact be hooked on a parasite that creates dopamine. Kean looks at “retrodiagnoses” from what caused the violinist Paganini’s super-flexible fingers, the artist Toulouse-Lautrec’s short stature, and John F. Kennedy’s tanned skin to the connection between porphyria and the Dracula legend. Any teen who has had basic biology will know enough science to follow Kean, and even those who still struggle with understanding DNA will find the stories worthwhile.–Sarah Flowers, formerly at Santa Clara County Library, CA