Richtel illuminates a complex subject so well that even physicians will learn.

AN ELEGANT DEFENSE

THE EXTRAORDINARY NEW SCIENCE OF THE IMMUNE SYSTEM: A TALE IN FOUR LIVES

An expert examination of the immune system and recent impressive advances in treating immune diseases.

Scientists describe the brain as the most complex organ, but novelist and Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times journalist Richtel (A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention, 2014, etc.) maintains that our immune system gives it a run for its money. Around 3.5 billion years ago, the earliest cells developed means to identify alien threats and (usually) fight them off. As organisms evolved greater complexity, their immune systems kept pace with mammals, humans included, which possess a dazzling collection of organs, tissues, wandering cells, DNA, messengers, and chemicals keeping watch on our “festival of life.” “The thymus makes T cells,” writes the author. “The bone marrow is the origin of B cells….The T cells, when alerted by dendritic cells, behave as soldiers, spitting out cytokines; the B cells use antibodies to connect to antigens as if they are keys in search of a lock. Macrophages, neutrophils, and natural killer cells roam the body, tasting, exploring, and killing.” In the first of many jolts, Richtel downplays the claims of enthusiasts who urge us to attain the strongest possible immune system. Immunity resembles less a comic-book superhero than a trigger-happy police force, equally capable of smiting villains and wreaking havoc on innocent bystanders. To illustrate, the author devotes equal space to its role in fending off threats (infections, cancer) and attacking healthy tissues during allergies and autoimmune diseases such as asthma, diabetes, colitis, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus. Scientific breakthroughs in producing specific antibodies have led to spectacularly effective—if toxic and wildly expensive—treatments for many. A newsman’s truism insists that readers love articles that include real people, so the author introduces us to four. All illustrate the good and bad features of modern immunotherapy, but the courses of their diseases are too bizarre to be typical.

Richtel illuminates a complex subject so well that even physicians will learn.

Pub Date: March 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-06-269853-7

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both...

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SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS

Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (General Relativity: The Most Beautiful of Theories, 2015, etc.) shares his thoughts on the broader scientific and philosophical implications of the great revolution that has taken place over the past century.

These seven lessons, which first appeared as articles in the Sunday supplement of the Italian newspaper Sole 24 Ore, are addressed to readers with little knowledge of physics. In less than 100 pages, the author, who teaches physics in both France and the United States, cogently covers the great accomplishments of the past and the open questions still baffling physicists today. In the first lesson, he focuses on Einstein's theory of general relativity. He describes Einstein's recognition that gravity "is not diffused through space [but] is that space itself" as "a stroke of pure genius." In the second lesson, Rovelli deals with the puzzling features of quantum physics that challenge our picture of reality. In the remaining sections, the author introduces the constant fluctuations of atoms, the granular nature of space, and more. "It is hardly surprising that there are more things in heaven and earth, dear reader, than have been dreamed of in our philosophy—or in our physics,” he writes. Rovelli also discusses the issues raised in loop quantum gravity, a theory that he co-developed. These issues lead to his extraordinary claim that the passage of time is not fundamental but rather derived from the granular nature of space. The author suggests that there have been two separate pathways throughout human history: mythology and the accumulation of knowledge through observation. He believes that scientists today share the same curiosity about nature exhibited by early man.

An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both scientists and general readers.

Pub Date: March 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-399-18441-3

Page Count: 96

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015

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