Skip to main content

The Body - Bill Bryson ****

I am a huge fan of Bill Bryson's travel books - he is a superb storyteller, and in the best parts of his science writing, this ability to provide fascinating facts and intriguing tales shines through.

After taking on the whole of science in his first book, here he focuses in on the physiology, anatomy and diseases of the human body. Bryson does so with his usual light, approachable style, peppering the plethora of facts (and 'don't know's - it's amazing how much we still don't know about the workings of the body) with the little nuggets you can't help but share and stories of some of the odd and, frankly, horrifying goings on in the history of medicine.

So, for example, Bryson throws in 'The chin is unique to humans and no one knows why we have one.' He speculates that it might be just that we 'find a good chin dashing' and quotes a Harvard professor as saying 'Testing this last hypothesis is especially difficult, but the reader is encouraged to think of appropriate experiments.'

It's a long time since I read Bryson's first science book, but I suspect that his Short History of Nearly Everything involved more going and talking to scientists, so had more of the feel of a documentary, and more opportunity to bring in his travel writing skills. Here, there was more of a focus on presentation of facts, though always in a way that felt more like a conversation with a friend than an introductory textbook on human biology - and there are still a number of interviews.

A good example of the way Bryson goes about exploring a topic is the way he deals with asthma. He starts with a story about the writer Marcel Proust, describing the many ways that Proust attempted to treat the condition, including enemas, opium and  having the gas to his house cut off. From Proust we move on to the way asthma has become more prevalent and the remarkable variation around the world - not, as you might expect, paralleling the degree of air pollution. It was shocking to read that the highest rate in the world is in the UK, where '30 per cent of children have shown asthma symptoms in the last year.' This is compared with rates around 3 percent in China, Greece, Romania and Russia. He then goes on, using an interview with an expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, to show how most of our ideas about asthma are wrong. For example, he quotes Neil Pearce as saying 'the main thing I have achieved is to show that almost none of the things people think cause asthma actually do.'

Along the way Bryson takes us on a tour of the body, starting with 'the outside' (skin and hair) and working through all the main parts, the vast numbers of microbes that share our body, body functions - such as movement, eating and sleep - and diseases, finishing with a whole chapter on cancer and another on the way that medicine has developed from doing more harm than good to its present state.

This is the perfect book for anyone (like me) who had little to do with biology at school and to whom much of the functioning of human anatomy is a mystery. You know that with Bryson at the helm, the voyage through your inner workings is bound to be fascinating and entertaining. I wish there had been more opportunity for his humour and recounting personal adventures, as in his travel books, because this is where Bryson is at his best - but even when recounting facts he keeps the reader interested, never lingering long enough to get bogged down.

Well worth a look.


Hardback 

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under