microbiology

Book review – Viruses: A Natural History

7-minute read
keywords: popular science, virology

Viruses are possibly even more maligned than bacteria, spoken of exclusively in terms of disease. Here, virologist Marilyn J. Roossinck ranges far beyond human pathogens to convince you how narrow that picture is. She instead reveals them as enigmatic entities that are intimately entwined with the entirety of Earth’s biosphere, exploiting and enabling it in equal measure. Backed by numerous infographics, the book alternates between chapters on basic principles of virology and brief portraits of noteworthy viruses. The result is an entry-level introduction to virology that fascinated me more than I expected.

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Book review – The Secret Perfume of Birds: Uncovering the Science of Avian Scent

7-minute read
keywords: ethology, olfaction, ornithology

To successfully navigate their world, organisms rely on numerous senses. Birds are no exception to this; and yet, for a long time, people have been convinced that birds cannot smell. This came as a surprise to evolutionary biologist Danielle J. Whittaker. Given that smell is effectively chemoreception (the sensing of chemical gradients in your environment) and was one of the first senses to evolve, why would birds have no use for it? The Secret Perfume of Birds tells the story of 15 years spent investigating the olfactory capabilities of birds and provides an insider’s account of scientific research.

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Book review – The Complete History of the Black Death (Second Edition)

11-minute read
keywords: demography, epidemiology, history

Earlier this year, Princeton University Press published The World the Plague Made. Since I do not know all that much about the medieval plague pandemic known as the Black Death, I innocently said to myself: “let’s do some homework”. Coincidentally, Boydell Press recently published The Complete History of the Black Death by Norwegian emeritus professor of history Ole J. Benedictow, which is a substantially updated version of his 2004 book The Black Death 1346–1353: The Complete History. Just a little bit of homework… Little did I know that I would spend the next 38(!) days soldiering my way through this tome, which is an unprecedentedly long time for me. Did this exercise result in a deeper understanding of the plague? On many levels, yes, but with some caveats, and a note that this book is not light reading.

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Book review – Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19

10-minute read

From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been one of the big questions. The default assumption for many has been zoonosis: a natural spillover event where an infectious disease jumps from an animal host into the human population. But could it have escaped from one of the several virology laboratories in Wuhan? Initially cast aside as a conspiracy theory, the idea has slowly been gaining credibility. Viral is a disconcerting book that considers what we know so far. Though the smoking gun remains missing, the circumstantial evidence raises several red flags. Given the increasingly heated and polarised discussion around this topic, I started reviewing this book with some trepidation.

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Book review – Fossilization: Understanding the Material Nature of Ancient Plants and Animals

6-minute read

Fossils are our prime source of information about life in the past. As I delve deeper into palaeontology and earth sciences, the process of fossilisation increasingly fascinates me. How does dead biological tissue fossilise? What information is lost, what is added, and what is distorted in the process? And, ultimately, how true or filtered a picture of past life does the fossil record provide? The edited book Fossilization brings together scientists from a range of disciplines working on cutting-edge topics. The result is a well-written if somewhat eclectic collection of chapters that addressed some of my queries and also answered questions I did not even know I had.

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Book review – Dead Zones: The Loss of Oxygen from Rivers, Lakes, Seas, and the Ocean

6-minute read

Rivers and oceans are easily neglected when it comes to pollution. Out of sight, out of mind and all that. Except that the oceans do not forget. Of all the water pollution problems, oxygen loss is probably one of the more abstract ones. Even the words used to describe it, hypoxia and anoxia, will be meaningless to those without a background in biology. In Dead Zones, marine scientist and microbiologist David L. Kirchman provides a general introduction to the problem of oxygen loss and why it matters.

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Book review – Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live

7-minute read

So far, most of the books I have read on the COVID-19 pandemic have either been of the backwards-looking, how-did-we-get-here type, or have dealt with practical virological, epidemiological, or immunological details. I picked up Apollo’s Arrow as it promised a forward-looking perspective while drawing parallels with past pandemics. Nicholas A. Christakis, a physician and sociologist directing the Human Nature Lab in Yale, got drafted into working on the pandemic from the start, tracking the spread of the virus, and sat at the bedside of many dying patients while working as a hospice doctor in New York. I believe we need to hear these frontline stories.

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Book review – Lessons from Plants

6-minute read

Plants are so drastically different from us mobile mammals that we struggle to fully grasp them. With Lessons from Plants, Beronda L. Montgomery, who is the MSU Foundation Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and Microbiology & Molecular Genetics at Michigan State University, reveals their surprising abilities and connections. Along the way, she reflects on how we as humans can draw lessons from this to live better lives, both for ourselves and for those around us.

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Book review – How to Make a Vaccine: An Essential Guide for COVID-19 & Beyond

7-minute read

A pandemic is probably a good moment to understand how vaccines are developed and how they work. This short and educational primer offers relevant background information on viruses and the immune system, and goes into much more detail on vaccines than other recent introductory books. How to Make a Vaccine is written by immunologist John Rhodes who brings to the table both his background in academic research on vaccines and his experience working for GlaxoSmithKline from 2001 to 2007. His narrative approach of choice is to tell the story of viruses, immunology, and vaccines through the history of scientific discovery.

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Book review – A Planet of Viruses (Third Edition)

5-minute read

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many publishers have seen an opportunity to reissue previously published books on viruses and pandemics. As a reader, it is always difficult to know whether you are actually getting any updated content beyond the obligatory new preface or afterword, or whether this is just a quick cash-grab. Fortunately, the third edition of Carl Zimmer’s famous virology primer A Planet of Viruses is here to prove those suspicions wrong.

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