Skip to main content

The Beautiful Cure - Daniel Davis ****

The subtitle of this book, 'Harnessing Your Body's Natural Defences' makes it sounds like a celebrity lifestyle book, or a collection of New Age nonsense. But this is a very different beast from its (dare I say it, possibly intentionally misleading) subtitle: instead its a scientific exploration of the immune system.

Despite the woo of alternative health practitioners, the immune system is not a single thing, but rather a complex collection of mechanisms that between them help us fight off invading organisms. And Daniel Davis's book is not a 'how to' manual, but rather a description of how we have gradually uncovered the workings of the many components and how it may be possible to make more of our immune system's powerful capabilities by manipulating it into doing an even better job than it does at the moment.

Professor of immunology Davis has an approachable, easy style, helped by the fact that he doesn't try to be literary. I loved the way that he comments 'It's common for science books which feature medical advances to include anecdotes of patients' stories as an emotive hook to the narrative. Encouraged by my publisher to do this, I asked my son, aged twelve at the time, what he thought of his asthma inhaler. He looked at me as if I'd just asked "Shall we go to Mars today?" and walked out of the room.' The only thing I'd add to his remark is the word 'bad', to make it 'It's common for bad science books...'

We discover a collection of detective stories as various scientists and teams in history (much of it surprisingly recent history) discover how different aspects of the immune system work. This proved an immensely complicated challenge, because of the sheer number of components involved, often interacting with each other, so that a single simple assumption like 'a foreign body triggers an immune reaction' proved far too simple. Davis brings both the effort required in this scientific work and the human nature of the researchers alive - I like that he has not covered up where there have been disputes and even legal action in pursuit of 'I got there first.'

I readily admit I am not a natural reader for this book. I hate anything medical - I'd rather not know and go on in blissful ignorance. But as this is really a book about molecular biology that happens to be oriented to the way the immune system deals with invaders and cancers I found it a lot less stressful than I had imagined.

There is only one reason I haven't given the book five stars - and that's because after a while, to the outsider it starts to get a bit samey. When you've heard of one molecule or set of molecules being tracked down through careful, repetitive work, it's quite similar to another molecule or molecules being tracked down. This is in no sense Davis's fault - he makes an excellent job of it - it's the nature of the science. As Davis has a physics background, he might forgive me for quoting Richard Feynman who, on discovering biology students had learned many esoteric names for biological components commented to them 'Then no wonder I can catch up with you so fast after you've had four years of biology.' The fact is biology is far more complex in terms of its component parts than anything in physics, and as a result it can be hard going.

'Yet another molecule' weariness only set in well through the book, and I would highly recommend it, whether you are the sort of person who thinks a 'detox drink' can reboot your immune system or just wonder why it's so difficult to provide an effective flu vaccine. Another excellent read from Daniel Davis.

Hardback:  

Paperback:  

Kindle:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

The Laser Inventor - Theodore Maiman ****

While the memoirs of many scientists are probably best kept for family consumption, there are some breakthroughs where the story is sufficiently engaging that it can be fascinating to get an inside view on what really happened. Although Theodore Maiman's autobiographical book is not a slick, journalist-polished account, it is very effective at highlighting two significant narratives - how Maiman was able to construct the first ever laser, despite having far fewer resources than many of his competitors, and how 'establishment' academic physicists, particularly in the US, tried to minimise his achievement.

On the straight autobiographical side, we get some early background and discover how Maiman combined degrees in electrical engineering and physics to have an unusually strong mix of the practical and the theoretical. Rather than go into academia after his doctorate, he went into industry - which seems to have been responsible for the backlash against his invention, which we…