Skip to main content

Living with Enza – Mark Honigsbaum ****

There was something chilling about reading Mark Honigsbaum’s account of the 1918 flu pandemic at a time when the world is threatened with another pandemic, of a similar type of influenza (at the time of writing, the 2009 swine flu outbreak has recently been declared a pandemic). There are distinct parallels – in 1918 there was a mild early outbreak before a crushing attack in the winter that killed millions worldwide.
What’s fascinating in Honigsbaum’s account is the way he intertwines the story of the flu pandemic with the story of the First World War, an era in history that for my generation was largely forgotten (we studied the Second World War in school, but not the first). It’s essential to make this link as it has, at least in part, to explain why the flu pandemic was given such scant regard at the time – there is very little written up about it – and it also adds pathos as we see these two terrible killers side by side. It also seems to be the case that, despite being called Spanish Flu back then, that the outbreak may well have come to Europe from the USA along with troops fighting in the war.
There is now a certain amount of irony about the last part of the book, which looks at how things might develop with a future pandemic, basing it on the bird flu scare that was prevalent when the book was written. Oddly, one thing Honigsbaum didn’t foresee was that we would have a mild outbreak first, paralleling the 1918 situation, and so giving the authorities more breathing space than he thought we would get.
Even so, the book, with its vivid descriptions of the impact of flu and the associated bacterial infections that tend to piggy-back on it makes grim and worrying reading. If the book has a fault, it’s a touch dry and does perhaps labour some of the details, but it is, nonetheless, a timely warning of what could be around the corner. It’s difficult to encourage people to buy books that are going to depress them – but this should be the exception to the rule.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Dialogues - Clifford Johnson ***

The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.

We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.

As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discu…

Liam Drew - Four Way Interview

Liam Drew is a writer and former neurobiologist. he has a PhD in sensory biology from University College, London and spent 12 years researching schizophrenia, pain and the birth of new neurons in the adult mammalian brain. His writing has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, Slate and the Guardian. He lives in Kent with his wife and two daughters. His new book is I, Mammal.

Why science?

As hackneyed as it is to say, I think I owe my fascination with science to a great teacher – in my case, Ian West, my A-level biology teacher.  Before sixth form, I had a real passion for the elegance and logic of maths, from which a basic competence at science at school arose.  But I feel like I mainly enjoyed school science in the way a schoolkid enjoys being good at stuff, rather than it being a passion.

Ian was a revelation to me.  He was a stern and divisive character, but I loved the way he taught.  He began every lesson by providing us with a series of observations and fact, then, gradually, between …

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…