The immune system is wild and confusing, so it's not a surprise they don't really teach it in school. But it's also very, very cool.
I literally never had any interest in learning about the immune system.
I was first introduced Immune through an extraordinary YouTube channel called Kurzgesagt, which means "In a nutshell". They explain science in a simple, visually beautiful way. And then my partner bought me the book for Christmas.
The founder of Kurzgesagt, Philipp Dettmer, is the author of this book. And he says himself that he's a pretty unlikely science communicator – as he says, he paid no attention at school and dropped out at 15. But he met an inspirational teacher that showed him that if you present things differently, they become fascinating.
A new world to discover inside our bodies
The immune system is cool, exciting (and sometimes kinda scary), and you can feel Dettmer's excitement all the way through. It felt like a shared journey. And it was so sharable, intermittently throughout the book I'd say to my partner, "Hey, I just learned something! Did you know..." to which they'd agree "I didn't know that. That is cool!"
For us, today might be a day like any other. But most of us are blissfully unaware of the constant dramas unfolding within us.
Dettmer explains that the body is basically a fortress, protected by millions upon millions of soldiers. Some of them are incredibly dangerous (even to ourselves) and have to constantly be kept in check. Some of them are highly specialised, like sniper rifles.
And there's some seriously strange stuff happening.
We've got cells that can get so irate in the face of invasion, they literally rip out their own DNA out of themselves and wield it like a net around them as they die.
We've got cells which peer inside of other cells through little display windows – of which every healthy cell has thousands – to have a look at what's on the inside and check for things like viruses – and order them to kill themselves if they find anything untoward.
And another awesome thing; our immune system even has an answer to every possible bacterium or virus that could ever exist, through the largest library of the universe of specialised superweapons.
It sounds like it should be impossible, but our bodies make it happen.
Despite the fact that without our immune system, we'd be dead within days, it's so overlooked in the mainstream.
Maybe that's because it's so complex, there aren't many science communicators able to tackle it confidently. Fortunately, Dettmer's here to save the day.
One of the most readable books I've read
It's written in refreshingly conversational, plain English. It couldn't be further from, say, a textbook..!
Structurally, it's broken down into very digestable chunks. There's a lot in the book, but most chapters have between three and eight pages of text, and maybe an illustrated page or two – which makes it easy to dip in and out of too.
And it's a beautiful book, too. It's got plenty of stunning illustrations that make it easy to visualise what's going on.
For those that are into this kind of thing, the hardback edition is beautifully made, satisfyingly weighty and printed with vibrant colours – heck, it even smells good (know what I mean?!)
Something to get you started
Kurzgesagt videos are awesome! Here's one to kick off with, if it's a new channel for you.
Courtesy of kurzgesagt.org