Immune by Philipp Dettmer (copyright 2021) is not your typical wildlife book. In fact, some may see it as kind of a stretch to review a book like this on a wildlife website, and maybe they are right feel that way. But, I decided to do a review of this book here because of how well it communicates the fundamentals of life as elegant—and wildly improbable—molecular machines. Surely there is room for all of us to develop a better understanding of these elementals—tiny mechanisms that accomplish their operations using molecules and the laws of chemistry. Life from non-life. Below the levels of the cellular, these molecular machines form the basis of life, and to truly appreciate the majesty of the natural world all around us, it is essential to reflect on underlying workings happening in the realm of the molecules.
Another great reason to read this book is that it has a particular relevance as we continue to come to grips with the COVID outbreak. Even as most of the country—and world—seems ready to move on from an agitated and apprehensive response to a more reasoned and level-headed accommodation of the rogue virus, it may be that a more complete understanding of our immune system and how it works would be of great benefit as we continue to move forward in our return to normalcy. Further, the book makes some early characterization of and predictions about COVID that can now be reviewed with hindsight. It is an interesting exercise to make note of what the author got right and what he got wrong.
And finally, the best reason to read this book is because it is really, really good. The human immune system is incredibly complicated and still not fully understood—even by our top scientists. It would be easy for a discussion about how it works to get bogged down in complex interactions and arcane scientific jargon. Instead the author provides explanations that are accessible, understandable, and entertaining. The accompanying illustrations—of which the book is full—are beautifully rendered, and do a fantastic job of bringing the text to life. Bright colors and graphical illustration are the perfect accompaniment to the story being told.
Accessible and Entertaining Explanations and Illustrations
T Cells are travelers that start their lives out in the bone marrow, where they mix and match the gene fragments that create their unique T Cell receptors, before they visit the Murder University of the Thymus to be educated. If the T Cells survive their education they move through your lymphatic megacity network, looking for an antigen that is exactly right and to get the encouraging kiss from a Dendritic Cell, to get activated.Immune by Philipp Dettmer – page 124
Just a Few Shortcomings
Unfortunately, the book does have a few, relatively minor, shortcomings. The author sometimes strays into the political—although these forays are limited and quite bearable. He also occasionally ventures into advice and opinion, both of which the book could do without. For example, there is a footnote in the chapter about cancer suggesting that encouraging people who are ill to keep a positive attitude is counterproductive. The author attempts to make the case that if a positive outlook is recommended, the patient will become burdened with self-blame if his condition continues worsens. The passage seems weakly reasoned at best and totally unnecessary at worse.
There is a myth that your attitude is crucial when it comes to surviving cancer. The general idea is that if you have and display a positive attitude, you will activate some mystical force in the immune system and enable it to overcome the disease. Inversely, a really negative attitude may have the opposite effect and make it harder for your body to beat the disease or may even have caused it.Immune by Philipp Dettmer – page 292
Later in the same passage, the author goes on to contradict himself a bit by asserting that there are benefits to maintaining a positive attitude when dealing with serious illnesses. It’s an odd flip flop which I suspect may have its roots in some unfortunate personal experience. Whatever the case, it’s a footnote that adds little to the book. Of course, there are no magic bullets for serious medical conditions—many cases will not turn out the way we would prefer no matter what is done. But retaining a realistic positive attitude certainly doesn’t hurt, and positive attitudes are almost always of benefit in nearly every aspect of life. In my experience—in big ways or small, and for many different reasons—attitude does affects outcome. No magic required.
It also seems that the book missed a few opportunities to cover other relevant immune system topics. Perhaps it would have been interesting to include a chapter on what happens when the immune system proves to be inadequate. For instance, a discussion about how a bacterial infection can spiral out of control, and what results when the body’s defenses are overwhelmed and cannot recover. It might also have been useful to cover topics of hygiene with a discussion about how household antiseptics work (alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, cleaning products), and how effective they are when used topically vs broadly. The benefits of personal hygiene and social distancing probably deserved more coverage as well.
And finally, the story of the immune system is so complex and involved that to fully get your arms around it you will likely have to read this book multiple times. Some real, old-time, schoolbook studying may be required. The good news is that this book communicates in such a straightforward and pleasant way that the idea of multiple reads does not feel daunting.
Overall this book is still an excellent read despite its few, minor imperfections. None of its shortcomings take away from the value of reading the book in a significant way; a fact that is reflected in the book’s final score…
- Accessible, Enjoyable Read – This book was a pleasure to read and is very accessible to the layman reader. Excellent illustrations! SCORE: FULL STAR
- Informative, Relevant, Insightful – The book is very informative and covers the subject matter very thoroughly. It has a special relevance as it relates to the COVID outbreak. Limited forays into politics and opinion. Some possibly relevant topics were not included. SCORE: FULL STAR
- Read Again, Add to Personal Library – I will definitely read this book again, and have added it to my personal library. SCORE: FULL STAR
- Availability, Price Point – The book is available digitally, as an audiobook, and as a hardback. All editions can be purchased for less than $20 at Amazon and other major retailers. SCORE: FULL STAR
- Recommend – This is an easy book to recommend to anyone who would like to know more about the immune system and how the molecular machinery of life really works. SCORE: FULL STAR