One of my favourite YouTube channels is “Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell”. They make short videos on science, technology, politics, philosophy, and more. The topics range from terraforming Venus to loneliness or the deep sea, and they are all explained with, as they call it, “optimistic nihilism”. During the short runtime of about 10 minutes, the videos manage to be educational, funny, profound, and cute all at once. When I learned that the creator had written a book, I just had to buy it. I wasn’t sure if I would really like it because the subject matter didn’t appeal to me all that much, but I wanted to support the channel. So I ended up getting the audio book because it is narrated by the same voice actor as the videos, and he is excellent.
What I love most about the channel is the same thing that makes this an amazing book; it is the ability to explain the most complex topics in a way that almost everyone can understand and enjoy. It is a masterclass in simplifying without dumbing down. Dettmer likes to use analogies that are always witty and vivid, and often surprising, and some of them even make you laugh at the most gruesome things. There is also just enough repetition overall, and recapitulation at the end of chapters, that it is easy to keep up. Most of the book focuses on the function and complexity of the immune system itself, but in the last quarter viruses, allergies, vaccines, cancer, autoimmune and infectious diseases, the hygiene theory, and many more topics are also discussed.
Dettmer is not an immunologist, but due to his own medical history, he started to dive deep into the subject. The book is suffused by the passion he developed, and it is powerful. He likens looking at the immune system to looking through a window at the universe, and this is a good comparison. The world our T-cells, B-cells, dendritic cells, and others inhabit is very small, but at the same time, it is as vast and awe-inspiring as the cosmos with its stars and planets and gigantic black holes. I don’t think that I have ever been very interested in the immune system, but this book not only managed to overcome this disinterest, it captivated me from beginning to end.
Our bodies are certainly incredible; to stay alive in this world is no small feat, and this book makes you appreciate it a little more. Also, I don’t think that I will ever look at a simple paper cut the same way, now that I know exactly what is going on in my body in response to one.