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Immune A Journey into the Mysterious System That Keeps You Alive

Popular Science
By: Philipp Dettmer(Author), Philip Laibacher(Illustrator)
345 pages, colour illustrations
Beautifully illustrated, Immune is an everyman's immunology textbook that gives a basic introduction to all the moving parts and the overall workings of our immune system.
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  • Immune ISBN: 9781529360684 Hardback Nov 2021 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
Price: £24.99
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About this book

The first book from the creator of the wildly popular science YouTube channel, Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell, a gorgeously illustrated deep dive into the immune system that will change how you think about your body forever.

You wake up and feel a tickle in your throat. Your head hurts. You're mildly annoyed as you get the kids ready for school and dress for work yourself. Meanwhile, an utterly epic war is being fought, just below your skin. Millions are fighting and dying for you to be able to complain as you drink your cup of tea and head out the door.

So what, exactly, IS your immune system?

Second only to the human brain in its complexity, it is one of the oldest and most critical facets of life on Earth. Without it, you would die within days. In Immune, Philipp Dettmer, the brains behind the most popular science channel on YouTube, takes readers on a journey through the fortress of the human body and its defences. There is a constant battle of staggering scale raging within us, full of stories of invasion, strategy, defeat, and noble self-sacrifice. In fact, in the time you've been reading this, your immune system has probably identified and eradicated a cancer cell that started to grow in your body.

Each chapter delves deeply into an element of the immune system, including defences like antibodies and inflammation as well as threats like viruses, bacteria, allergies and cancer, as Dettmer reveals why boosting your immune system is actually nonsense, how parasites sneak their way past your body's defences, how viruses – including the coronavirus – work, and what goes on in your wounds when you cut yourself.

Enlivened by engaging full-colour graphics and immersive descriptions, Immune turns one of the most intricate, interconnected, and confusing subjects – immunology – into a gripping adventure through an astonishing alien landscape.

Challenging what you know and think about your own body and how it defends you against all sorts of maladies and how it might also eventually be your own downfall, Immune is a vital and remarkably fun crash course in what is arguably, and increasingly, the most important system in the body.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • An everyman's immunology book
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 8 Jun 2022 Written for Hardback

    Our lives depend on a functioning immune system, but few of us understand how it works and fewer still can explain it. Thus, Philip Dettmer, the creator of the wildly successful popular science YouTube channel Kurzegsagt, has written this chunky book. An entertaining crash course in immunobiology, it does a wonderful job at introducing all the moving parts that make up this byzantine system.

    Dettmer's interest in this topic started in university while studying information design. Innocently thinking that reading up on the immune system would make for a nice semester project, it has kept him fascinated for nearly a decade. Meanwhile, Kurzgesagt took off and became a full-time occupation. Some topics, however, do not lend themselves well to short, ten-minute videos; immunology and its jargon befuddle even specialists. Thus Dettmer's decision to write a book. Before diving in, it might be worth pointing out that this is not a graphic novel or art book. This is popular science writing that is nicely complemented by Philip Laibacher's drawings that ooze the signature Kurzgesagt style.

    Drawing on the textbook Janeway's Immunobiology, review papers, technical articles, and feedback and help from three immunologists, Immune introduces the inner workings of the human immune system. In essence, it is a tool to distinguish and protect the self from the other. Behind that simple statement hides a world of complexity. To keep it accessible and interesting to a lay audience, Dettmer mentions that he simplifies the material and is selective about the level of detail he includes. He is similarly upfront about the stylistic choice to anthropomorphise and assign agency to processes that are basically mindless biochemistry. And he reminds readers of this in various places in the book when introducing delightful details in footnotes, or highlighting areas where immunologists disagree over the best interpretation.

    What follows is an excellently structured book divided into 45 short chapters of two to ten pages each that is a real eye-opener. Dettmer walks you through a typical bacterial infection after you step on a sharp nail, and a viral infection after you catch the flu. As he follows these processes, he regularly pauses the playback, so to speak, to introduce all the major cell types of both your innate and adaptive immune system, and the central role of your lymphatic system where information is relayed from one to the other. Coming out at the other end you will better understand what each of these cells does, how they differ, and how they interact. A final part discusses examples of the immune system malfunctioning, such as autoimmune diseases, allergies, and cancer.

    Let me give you one example of the awe-inspiring details I learned about. Except for red blood cells, all your cells have NHC class I proteins embedded in their membrane. They act as a sort of display windows that bind random internal proteins, essentially presenting a snapshot of a cell's biochemistry to the outside world. Who monitors these display windows? Killer T cells do. Once activated by an infection (you will learn all about the cascade that leads to this), they move through the body inspecting MHC class I molecules on cells. If they detect that a cell's biochemistry is compromised by an invader, they will order that cell to destroy itself. Now for the interesting bit. Some viruses have evolved the ability to order a cell to stop making MHC class I. Without display windows, these infected cells effectively become invisible to your immune system. In turn, the body has evolved a counter-response: natural killer cells. These are always "on", ready to kill, and only the presence of MHC class I stops them from doing so. This offers an effective way of sniffing out rogue cells. How neat is that?

    More important than interesting trivia is that Immune brilliantly reveals the bigger picture of how your immune system works. First, it relies on constant positive reinforcement. This feedback mechanism ensures that immune responses fizzle out as infections are overcome without the need for a central command structure. Second, your immune system is constantly balanced between suppressing infections in a timely fashion, but not being so aggressive that it injures you. It has incredibly powerful weapons at its disposal that can kill you in minutes, so it requires checks, balances, and the biochemical equivalent of two-factor authentication before unleashing its full potential. Most discomfort you experience during an infection are side-effects of your immune system in action, not of the pathogen.

    There are two other noticeable facets to this book. First, Dettmer is outspoken in his criticism. This was music to my ears but might challenge the beliefs of some readers. He criticizes "people who don't understand chemistry" (p. 239) and claim the adjuvants added to vaccines are a poison. In reality, they activate the immune response for those vaccines that are otherwise too harmless. He criticizes the anti-vaxxers who wilfully expose their children to measles by highlighting that it kills immunological memory cells. A case of what does not kill you makes you weaker. He criticizes the wellness gurus who spread the discredited idea that a positive attitude "will activate some mystical force in the immune system and enable it to overcome [cancer]" (p. 292). A horrible notion that effectively blames the sick for failing to get better. Foremost, he criticizes the supplement industry for peddling the idea that you can boost your immune system. By the time you finish the book, you understand that the immune system is a balancing act. Boosting it "is a horrible idea that is used by people trying to make you buy useless stuff!" (p. 280), and success would risk autoimmune diseases, chronic inflammation, or allergies.

    The other facet is that some of Dettmer's metaphors are rather violent and graphical. For example, there is a strict selection process during T cell training to prevent them from treating your cells as foreign intruders. T cells that fail to pass this test are ordered to undergo programmed cell death. Dettmer describes it as teachers shooting their students in the face. Wait, what? Probably intended to make the writing more engaging, his off-beat jokes got some chuckles out of me but will definitely not appeal to everyone. I am a tad surprised at their inclusion in a book that is so clearly aimed at a very broad audience.

    In a nutshell, Immune is an everyman's immunology textbook. It introduces the major players involved while illuminating the overall mechanism by which our immune system functions. This is a highly recommended starting point that will equip you with the basic knowledge you need to read deeper into this challenging topic.
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Philipp Dettmer is the founder and head writer of Kurzgesagt, one of the largest science channels on Youtube with over fifteen million subscribers and one billion views. After dropping out of high school at age fifteen, Philipp met a remarkable teacher who inspired in him a passion for learning and understanding the world. He went on to study history and information design with a focus on infographics. After college, Philipp started Kurzgesagt as a passion project to explain complicated ideas from a holistic perspective. When the channel took off, Philipp dedicated himself full-time to making difficult ideas engaging and accessible.

Popular Science
By: Philipp Dettmer(Author), Philip Laibacher(Illustrator)
345 pages, colour illustrations
Beautifully illustrated, Immune is an everyman's immunology textbook that gives a basic introduction to all the moving parts and the overall workings of our immune system.
Media reviews

– A Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller

"Through wonderful analogies and a genius for clarifying complex ideas, Immune is a truly brilliant introduction to the human body's vast system for fighting infections and other threats. With his trademark wit and intellectual deft, Dettmer helps us understand not just the beautiful and strange mechanics of human immune responses, but also what works (and perhaps more importantly what doesn't work!) when seeking to bolster immunity."
– John Green, New York Times bestselling author of The Fault in Our Stars

"Immune reads as if it's a riveting sci-fi novel, as Philipp Dettmer takes you on a journey into the body for an up-close look at the armies of expert warriors, rogue gladiators, and stealthy detectives that protect you in the daily war against trillions of ruthless microbe enemies. By the end of the book, I understood my entire body far better than I ever had before. Immune is a delightful treat for the curious"
– Tim Urban, creator of Wait But Why

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