microbiology

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

11-minute read

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 – A Natural History of the Future: What the Laws of Biology Tell Us About the Destiny of the Human Species

7-minute read

When considering environmental issues, the usual rallying cry is that of “saving the planet”. Rarely do people acknowledge that, rather, it is us who need saving from ourselves. We have appropriated ever-larger parts of Earth for our use while trying to separate ourselves from it, ensconced in cities. But we cannot keep the forces of life at bay forever. In A Natural History of the Future, ecologist and evolutionary biologist Rob Dunn considers some of the rules and laws that underlie biology to ask what is in store for us as a species, and how we might survive without destroying the very fabric on which we depend.

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Book review – Regenesis: Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet

8-minute read

Do you eat? Then you might wish to consider that farming is destroying the planet. Or so argues Guardian columnist and environmental campaigner George Monbiot, who is never one to shirk controversy. I have a lot of time for Monbiot. I might not agree with everything he has written over the years, but I find his ideas to be driven by sound logic and appropriate scepticism. He is neither afraid to admit his mistakes nor to piss people off by saying things they do not want to hear. In that sense, Regenesis is a necessary provocation.

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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 – Plagues upon the Earth: Disease and the Course of Human History

7-minute read

It might sound crass to write that the COVID-19 pandemic is just the latest in a long line of infectious disease outbreaks, but a little perspective helps. Historian Kyle Harper previously impressed me with his study on the role of climate and disease in the decline of the Roman Empire. In Plagues Upon the Earth, he offers a global, multidisciplinary environmental history of infectious disease, showing that it is a force that has both shaped and been shaped by human history. This magnificent book stood out as much for its nuance and academic rigour as it did for its readability.

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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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