New Books In Medicine Podcast: Sam Kean Tells Wide Range of Stories From Our Genetic Past

Author: Sam Kean

Book: The Violinist's Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, And Genius as Written by Our Genetic Code

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The focus of the “The Violinist’s Thumb” is centered on the human genome, and the stories buried in our human genetic past. Author Sam Kean states that we’ve been able to learn about ourselves by taking clues from our genome almost like a new language that has been decoded for the first time.

Kean expertly shares an array of stories that are eclectic and sometimes gruesome. Examples include how Einstein's brain was dissected and studied without permission, why you should never consume the liver of a polar bear, and a look at the genetic anomalies of the unluckiest man of the 20th century, who survived two nuclear bombings. 

Kean holds the reader’s attention with his irreverent humor, and even an author’s note that states that there is a hidden DNA-related acrostic in the book— a genetic “Easter egg” for astute readers to find.

Listen below to Sam Kean share his thoughts about his book and learn more about the history and future of our genetic code:


Highlights from the Podcast:

  1. What most people don’t know is that DNA is a substance, and it’s unusual because it’s not uniform like most other substances. DNA structures are basically the same, but there are variations on it, so putting the 4 bases in different orders it can do a lot of amazing things. Kean compares it to how computers use only binary code of ones and zeroes. Genes make or do something in particular inside of our cells. DNA and genes are intertwined, but are not synonymous and for a long time scientists did not know that genes were made from DNA.

  2. On Darwin’s theory of evolution— Mendel and Darwin’s theories were in conflict with each other for a very long time. Darwin believed that evolution happened very, very slowly and gradually, and a lot of people didn’t like the natural selection aspect of it. Mendel’s theory of evolution was more in line citing large jumps and changes at once instead of slow gradual evolution. Kean answers questions like, what makes a mammal a mammal?  and when and why did humans break away from apes?

  3. Toxoplasmosis (Toxo for short) is a parasitic disease that can affect most animals.  Cats, however, are the only animal in which the parasite can complete its life cycle.  Cats become infected by Toxoplasma gondii by eating the immature forms of the parasite contained within the muscle or organ tissue of other infected animals, such as mice. 

    Toxo gets into the brain of mice and helps in producing the chemical dopamine, and it rewires the mice to switch their ideas of what is interesting and what they should be afraid of. Mice are hardwired to be afraid of the smell of cats, after mice are infected by Toxo their brains are affected so they are attracted to cats. The mice seek out cats, and the cat eats the mouse and thus the Toxo parasites gets ingested to end up back in the intestines of cats. The scary thing is that Toxo also affects the brains of humans.  There is good evidence out there that those  who are stereotypical "crazy cat people" actually have a Toxo infection which makes them attracted to cats in an unusual way.

  4. There has been a lot of research done and discoveries made on what makes humans smart overall, but scientists have never figured out what makes individual human beings geniuses. When Albert Einstein died a doctor in New Jersey, decided to salvage Einstein’s brain to study it and try to figure out what made him a genius.  Dr. Thomas Harvey  did not get the proper permissions when he set out to study the brain, but eventually did and discovered that Einstein had a brain that was below the average size for humans. He also chopped Einstein’s brain up into small pieces and put them in plastic shellac to send  onto Neurologists all over the world. Unfortunately, they did not discover why Einstein was a genius, perhaps because there was nothing to compare it to.

What is This Book About?

Description from the back cover:

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.


About the author, Sam Kean


sam kean-1Sam Kean is a science writer based in Washington D.C, with a background in physics. He focuses on writing about science history while telling fascinating stories. In The Disappearing Spoon, bestselling author Sam Kean unlocked the mysteries of the periodic table. In The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code (Bay Back Books, 2013), he explores the wonders of the magical building block of life: DNA. Kean’s vibrant storytelling once again makes science entertaining, explaining human history and whimsy while showing how DNA will influence our species’ future. 

About the interviewer, Jeremy Corr

JeremyCorrJeremy Corr is a Sales Consultant who helps provider organizations grow revenue and create positive patient experiences. A University of Iowa history alumni, Jeremy is curious and passionate about all things healthcare, which means he’s always up for a good discussion! Jeremy is also the co-host of the hit new podcast "Fixing Healthcare."

Reach him at


About New Books Network

NBN MedicineThe New Books Network is a consortium of author-interview podcast channels dedicated to raising the level of public discourse by introducing serious authors to a wide public via new media.

They publish 100 new interviews every month and serve a large, worldwide audience. The not-for-profit, has over 1 million downloads of their episodes a month. 


About Lisa Skriver

Lisa Skriver

Lisa has 8 years of experience working both front and back end revenue cycle. At MediRevv she has served both as a Patient Experience Representative and as a Revenue Cycle Representative, and today, she works as an Inbound Marketing Lead, sharing relevant content through a variety of channels to make connections with prospective clients. She enjoys videography and photography.

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