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

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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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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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