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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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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LAB GIRL

Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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A media-savvy scientist cleans out his desk.

LETTERS FROM AN ASTROPHYSICIST

Tyson (Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, 2017, etc.) receives a great deal of mail, and this slim volume collects his responses and other scraps of writing.

The prolific science commentator and bestselling author, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History, delivers few surprises and much admirable commentary. Readers may suspect that most of these letters date from the author’s earlier years when, a newly minted celebrity, he still thrilled that many of his audience were pouring out their hearts. Consequently, unlike more hardened colleagues, he sought to address their concerns. As years passed, suspecting that many had no interest in tapping his expertise or entering into an intelligent give and take, he undoubtedly made greater use of the waste basket. Tyson eschews pure fan letters, but many of these selections are full of compliments as a prelude to asking advice, pointing out mistakes, proclaiming opposing beliefs, or denouncing him. Readers will also encounter some earnest op-ed pieces and his eyewitness account of 9/11. “I consider myself emotionally strong,” he writes. “What I bore witness to, however, was especially upsetting, with indelible images of horror that will not soon leave my mind.” To crackpots, he gently repeats facts that almost everyone except crackpots accept. Those who have seen ghosts, dead relatives, and Bigfoot learn that eyewitness accounts are often unreliable. Tyson points out that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, so confirmation that a light in the sky represents an alien spacecraft requires more than a photograph. Again and again he defends “science,” and his criteria—observation, repeatable experiments, honest discourse, peer review—are not controversial but will remain easy for zealots to dismiss. Among the instances of “hate mail” and “science deniers,” the author also discusses philosophy, parenting, and schooling.

A media-savvy scientist cleans out his desk.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-324-00331-1

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Sept. 2, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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