There is an immunology joke that appeared in an article I read a few years ago. The article’s author, Ed Yong, attributed it to Jessica Metcalf, a professor and researcher at Princeton. To (very) roughly paraphrase the original joke:
“A cardiologist and an immunologist are kidnapped. Their captors promise to spare the doctor who will prove he has made a greater contribution to society. The cardiologist tells them about his work in creating a life-saving heart drug that has been used by millions of people. The kidnappers, impressed, turn to the immunologist. It begins with “Well, let me start by saying that immunology is a very complex field”, to which the cardiologist adds: “Kill me now!”
The point of the joke being, of course, that our immune system is an incredibly complex conglomeration of intertwined systems, each performing a specific task to protect your body from foreign invaders, and it’s very difficult and often boring to explain how it works on a technical level.
For most of us, our immune system does an admirable job and we don’t need to know or even think about the details of how it protects us until we get sick. But sometimes our immune system is compromised for various reasons. An underlying medical condition or new medication may temporarily or permanently suppress one’s ability to work. Other times, our immune system becomes overzealous in identifying harmless objects such as peanuts or pollen as existential threats. This zeal manifests itself in allergic reactions that can be bothersome and uncomfortable on different levels or, in the worst case, life-threatening.
Given that a person can spend their life trying to understand the immune system and not know everything – new research is being done all the time – how can a layman hope to understand what is going on inside their own body?
“Immune: A Journey Through the Mysterious System That Keeps You Alive” by Philipp Dettmer is not a perfect book, but it is an excellent introduction to gaining a basic understanding of a very complex subject. Dettmer is the creator of Kurzgesagt, a popular science education YouTube channel he has run since 2013.
If you are a true immunologist, you will find that “Immune” is not for you. Dettmer admits it, but for everyone else, it’s a simple and entertaining introduction to the war that rages inside you every day. The language is kept as simple as possible, and color illustrations help to visualize the microscopic processes of the immune system.
Dettmer also includes an extensive bibliography for those who are skeptical of the book’s claims or want to learn more or see the source material for themselves. For better or worse, the bibliography isn’t actually included in the book, but is instead hosted on Dettmer’s website.
We’ve had to think about our immune systems a lot more than normal over the past few years. If you want to learn more, “Immune” is an appropriate introduction for adults and older teens to this vast and complex system, and it might make you want to seek out other sources of information.
• “Immune: A Journey into the Mysterious System That Keeps Alive” by Philipp Dettmer was published by Random House in November 2021. It retails for $35.
• JT Ménard works for the Inklings bookstore. He and other Inklings staff review books in the Sunday Explore section each week.