“The Violinists Thumb” author to visit Chester, VSU

Visiting author Sam Kean will be the first visiting author in the 15-year-old program whose book will focus on a blend of science, history, mathematics, language and the arts.

His book “The Violinist’s Thumb,” is a very readable book, even for those science-phobic among us.

The Visiting Author program has been engaging Chesterfield and Colonial Heights science students since the late 90s and was started by Krishan Agrawal, a Virginia State University professor, who purchased the books for the county students. The program grew to such an extent that it was rechanneled to encompass larger groups prompting Chesterfield to take over the entire program, including purchasing the books.

Wenberg said students had a choice of four books to choose from, but they didn’t want to talk about any others but “The Violinist’s Thumb.”

In “The Violinist’s Thumb” Kean asks the questions: “Did the human race almost go extinct? Can genetics explain a crazy cat lady’s love for felines? How does DNA lead to people with no fingerprints, or humans born with tails? And how did the right combination of genes create the exceptionally flexible thumbs and fingers of a truly singular violinist?” according to the book’s liner notes.

Kean will spend Oct. 14 in Chesterfield County Public Schools, talking with science and writing students at Thomas Dale High. His final session of the day is free and open to the public: Kean will speak and answer questions about his work at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 14 in the auditorium of Thomas Dale High, 3626 W. Hundred Rd. After his presentation, students will perform works of music, dance and theater inspired by “The Violinist’s Thumb.” Visual artworks will be on display.

“Unraveling the genetic code hasn’t always been easy – from its earliest days, genetics has been rife with infighting, backstabbing, and controversial theories – but scientists can now finally read the astounding stories about human history buried in our DNA,” Kean writes.

The history of those who worked to discover DNA and bring the research to where it is today, is a story of not only science and research but also a dramatic foray into the lives of these researchers, their desire for fame and their desire to discredit one another – a virtual soap opera of science.

The introduction will give the reader a sense of the readability and the keen sense of humor that Kean has. He tells us in the introduction: “I’m writing this book dispite the fact that my father’s name is Gene. As is my mother’s name. Gene and Jean. Gene and Jean Kean. Beyond being singsong absurd, my parents’ names led to a lot of playground jabs over the years: my every fault and foible was traced to ‘my genes,’ and when I did something idiotic, people smirked that ‘my genes made me do it.’”

Besides the creative language and tongue-in-cheek humor there is an artistic side to Kean’s work. Kean writes that the “pictures of 23 chromosomes paired up like paper dolls – have been transformed from dull dichromatic into pictures so flamboyantly incandescent that a fauvist would blush.”

“The desire to fashion ‘living’ works of art – has driven artist and will only grow stronger as biotechnology advances.”

Agrawal is still involved and promotes the Visiting Author program in Chesterfield and at VSU. Dr. Melanie Haimes-Bartolf, Science Instructional Specialist for Chesterfield County Public Schools and Sitha Wenberg, an advanced science and biology teach at Thomas Dale High School, have organized the program for at least the last six years.

“Having accessible books is a way to turn people on,” Haimes-Bartolf said.  She works each year with different Chesterfield schools to put the program together.

Wenberg said students had a choice of four books to choose from but they didn’t want to talk about any others but “The Violinist’s Thumb.”

“We fought for this book and we prevailed,” Wenberg said. “The science department chose the book because it is basically a science-based program. We saw this book, we read it and we saw how it could apply to the entire school.” Wenberg continued, “There is a lot of meat in there because I can teach all the upper level concepts in there that I want for my John Tyler students and AP biology students. It’s all in there.”

Kean will work with several classes in the morning and in the afternoon. Students from other Chesterfield schools are welcome as is, Colonial Heights High School. Then in the evening the public will be able to hear Kean speak about his book and hint about his upcoming book. The evening will have a little something for everyone.

“Chills and flames, frost and inferno, fire and ice,” Kean writes in the first chapter. “The two scientists who made the first great discoveries in genetics had a lot in common – not least the fact that both died obscure, mostly unmourned and happily forgotten by many of their peers. But whereas one’s legacy perished in fire, the other’s succumbed to ice.”

The author will visit Virginia State University with guest students from Colonial Heights High School on October 15.

Sam Kean is author of the New York Times bestsellers “The Disappearing Spoon” and “The Violinist’s Thumb.” Both books were also named Amazon’s top-five science books of the year, and the “Disappearing Spoon” was a runner-up for the Royal Society of London’s Book of the Year for 2010. His work has appeared in the New York Times magazine, Slate, Mental Floss, and other publications, and he has been featured on NPR’s “Radiolab,” “All Things Considered,” and “Fresh Air.”

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