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‘The Body – A Guide for Occupants’ review: Unravelling the science of the human body

Bill Bryson’s study covers a wide array of topics from the brain to the skin and is peppered with delightful facts

Bill Bryson’s 2003 work, A Short History of Nearly Everything, delved into the universe, and brought the somewhat inaccessible world of science to the layperson. In The Body, he does the same for the bodies that we, well, occupy all day. In just over 450 pages, Bryson covers a wide array of topics, from the human brain, to the skin, to the microbes that we all carry around and even cancer, or when things go horribly wrong. The book contains a staggering amount of information, but that never stops Bryson from being chatty, down to earth and very, very funny.

And so we travel with Bryson, as he uncovers the many mysteries of the human body and modern medicine. It’s only too easy to take our bodily functions — the skin, the digestive system, the immune system and all the rest of them — for granted, just as we have come to be used to vaccines and antibiotics and modern dentistry. But we only need to look a little bit closer to see just how complex they are, and Bryson’s book does just that. Why does the digestive system do such a good job of killing bacteria but not our own organs? What really lies behind race and skin colour (a “sliver of skin about a millimetre thick,” says Bryson)? How much of us is really us? (Not much — a very large chunk of the cells floating around in us belong to microbes).

Radical discoveries

Bryson doesn’t only talk about the science of the body — he also delves into the history of some of the greatest medical discoveries of our time. Bryson tells us about many unsung heroes, such as Ignaz Semmelweis, who first promoted handwashing to prevent infections in maternity hospitals, Nettie Stevens, whose dogged persistence led to the discovery of the X and Y-chromosomes, and Theodor Bilharz, who died trying to contain typhus in Cairo. A good chunk of the book is devoted to the extraordinary story of William Halsted, the father of modern surgery, who performed a daring gallbladder surgery on the kitchen table before developing the radical mastectomy for breast cancer. Bryson also reminds us that the great “accidental” discoveries of medicine may not have been quite as accidental as we think — Alexander Fleming was a persistent and careful scientist, whose discovery of penicillin accompanied some other pathbreaking work on lysozymes to fight infection. Indeed, the petri dishes on which the penicillium grew had been discovered only 50 years before. To get as far as we have — a world with vaccines against infectious diseases, treatments for cancer and higher life expectancies than ever before — we have piggybacked on years of work by many, many great scientists before us.

Like in all of his earlier work, Bryson manages to convey a sense of wonder, as if he can’t quite believe that the human body is all this. The book is peppered with delightful little factoids, such as how passionate kissing can transfer more than one billion bacteria between people. Through this, Bryson’s sense of humour remains intact — he describes sperm cells as “blundering idiots,” “curiously ill-prepared for the one task evolution has given them.”

But The Body isn’t all fun and games. In a more sombre tone than he usually uses, he reminds us that our bodies, designed to keep us from starving in paleolithic winters, cannot quite deal with the abundance of food in our modern lives. Millennials like me might be the first generation not to outlive our parents. Medical care in the United States, advanced as it is, is expensive and inaccessible to many. With the overuse of antibiotics, we may find ourselves gravely unprepared for drug-resistant infections lurking in every scratch of a rose bush. After all, as Bryson reminds us, this is a planet of microbes, which would do just fine without us. We would do well to remember the journey we took to get this far.

The Body: A Guide for Occupants; Bill Bryson, Penguin Random House, ₹999.

When not researching policy, the writer is reading pop science books and trying to perfect her rasam recipe.

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2020 6:15:47 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/the-body-a-guide-for-occupants-review-unravelling-the-science-of-the-human-body/article30761092.ece

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