Like every other species on the planet, humans suffer from infectious diseases caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microorganisms. What sets us apart is a set of nifty tricks—the fruits of several centuries of scientific and medical advances—that allow us to strike back and gain a measure of control. And yet, as Norwegian professor of medicine Stig S. Frøland writes, this is a duel without end: we can win many battles, but we will never win the war. This book, driven by his interest in history and backed by his medical expertise, provides a good all-round introduction to the history of infectious diseases and the many ways in which we have sought to prevent and cure them.
Back in March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic first swept around the world, I reviewed David Quammen’s 2012 book Spillover for background reading. It looked at the risk of zoonosis: the spilling over of an infectious disease from animal into human populations. Quammen warned, and gave voice to many others who similarly warned, that the next big disease outbreak might very well be viral, in particular RNA viruses such as coronaviruses. Other authors quickly wrote books within the first year of the pandemic (I reviewed some of them), but not yet Quammen: “early in 2021 I decided to keep quiet for a while and listen” (p. 282). Finally, in October 2022, his book Breathless provided us with his insights into COVID-19 and the virus SARS-CoV-2.
7-minute read keywords: immunology, popular science
Our lives depend on a functioning immune system, but few of us understand how it works. And fewer still can explain it because, to quote Ed Yong: “immunology is where intuition goes to die“. Thus, Philip Dettmer, the creator of the wildly successful popular science YouTube channel Kurzegsagt, has written this chunky book. An entertaining crash course in immunobiology, it does a wonderful job at introducing all the moving parts that make up this byzantine system.
Every one of us is here through a long string of happy accidents that might just as well not have happened. That is the contention behind A Series of Fortunate Events, a short and snappy book by evolutionary biologist Sean B. Carroll. Examining planetary events, evolution, and our personal lives and deaths—and introducing one remarkable French biologist—it read like an appetizer that left me wanting to explore this topic further.
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.
The word biology derives from the Greek words bíos (βίος in Greek), meaning “life”, and -logía (-λογία in Greek), meaning “branch of study”, and is usually defined as “the study of life”. But what is life? Remarkably, biologists cannot agree on a definition. Everyone can name clear examples of living and non-living things. However, as so often in biology, there is no sharp demarcation between the two. There is a grey area where things are, well, somewhat alive? Lifelike? It is these borderlands between life and non-life that famous science writer and journalist Carl Zimmer explores in Life’s Edge. Instead of providing an answer, this intellectually stimulating and rewarding book will help you understand why it is such a hard question to begin with.
History will forever associate Charles Darwin with the theory of evolution, but the idea was in the air. Had not Darwin published his famous book, someone else would have likely snatched the prize. Husband-and-wife duo John and Mary Gribbin here examine the wider milieu in which Darwin operated and the many thinkers who preceded him. Given their previous collaborations, the first two parts of On the Origin of Evolution read like a well-oiled machine, but the book falters when they turn their eyes to the legacy of Darwin’s ideas.
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.
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.
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.