Skip to main content

Viruses vs Superbugs – Thomas Häusler ****

If ever there was a book that wasn’t for the faint hearted, it’s this one. I don’t mean that it’s painful to read. Despite being a translation (I’ll come back to this), it’s fluent and easy to get through the words – it’s just the contents that are nerve wracking.
We’ve all heard the news stories about “superbugs” – bacteria like MRSA (originally short for methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus, but now, in sinister fashion, the MR means multi-resistant) that stalk hospitals and elsewhere, killing patients and refusing to respond to antibiotics. The first part of Thomas Häusler’s book concentrates firmly on scaring us to death about just how unstoppable these simple, but deadly bacteria, always around ready to take on a suitable wound, are becoming. The trouble is that bacteria breed very quickly. That means it doesn’t take long for a variant to occur that happens to be able to resist an antibiotic, and once the mutation crops up, natural selection means it may well have a better chance of surviving. Especially if antibiotics are sprayed around heavy-handedly by doctors and the livestock industry as Häusler makes it very clear they have been.
Is all lost? Are we to return to the bad old days, pre-antibiotics, where deaths from these killer bacteria were rife? Luckily, before we all go away and end it all, we are offered an alternative. Bacteria have a natural enemy – specialist viruses that prey on bacteria called phages (great word – and it doesn’t do any harm that they under an electron microscope they bear a distinct visual resemblance to the lunar lander – very sci-fi). This proves to be one of those “told you so” things, where those who get all snotty about modern science can say “we knew better in the old days”. Phages were popular as a weapon against bacteria before antibiotics were introduced, particularly in Eastern Europe, and have continued to be used there but not elsewhere. Since the earlier part of the twentieth century, there has been a lot of doubt about the effectiveness of phages – not helped by a period when they were marketed like patent medicine. What Häusler does is to show how phages offer hope when combined with modern techniques, if the antibiotics give up.
Of course there is a long and chequered history of using natural predators to dispose of an unwanted infestation. Ladybirds (ladybugs) are popular environmentally friendly solutions to aphids, for instance. But the “chequered” part refers to the habit of many predators, when let loose, of doing unexpected damage. While phages are very targeted, so unlikely to stray, there is always the concern that something might go wrong – viruses can mutate too. Also enough isn’t known about phages. Some are effectively symbiotic, and instead of killing a bacterium, these “temperate phages” can turn a low risk infector into a killer. And then it’s not always easy to get the right phages to the right place to kill the bacteria as they’re relatively big compared with the chemical molecules of a drug, and the body has a tendency to break them down. That makes it a more balanced, more interesting story than simply “hey, here’s a new cure, no need to worry.”
If you can cope with the content, there’s not that much to criticize, though the book does slightly lose impetus after a while (I found, for instance, the story of Georgiy Eliava, a phage pioneer’s struggle against the Soviet machine took me too far off track). It does also occasionally slip into tabloid language – I know MRSA is often labelled a “superbug”, but the use of “bug” as an alternative for bacterium grates.
On the whole, despite the very depressing content, this was a good book. Many translations feel lumpy, somehow, like a loaf that hasn’t risen properly – this is very readable, and it would be impossible to tell it was a translation if the reader hadn’t been told. The story is told well, and strikingly too. There’s excellent use of the stories of real people involved in the fight against bacteria – both medics and patients. It’s just… I think now I’ve read it, I want to wash my hands. In fact, I’ll go and do it now…
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …