By Carl Zimmer
Review by Niamh (Chemistry)
This book has a slightly scary-looking dark cover with a picture of some kind of microscopic flea, but don’t let that or the topic of parasitic diseases put you off! It’s a fascinating read, tying together many topics in biology like evolution and the immune system, and it is written in a style that makes the rather obscure discipline of parasitology truly interesting. I was never particularly interested in biology and am quite squeamish naturally, but this is the one book that made me consider being a parasitologist! I first read it when I was about 17, and have been spouting malaria facts ever since.
The pages are packed with really interesting facts about the parasites that cause both human and animal diseases, and the profound impacts that parasites have had on all parts of life. Zimmer explains how the creatures have both affected us on evolutionary timescales – ranging from malaria encouraging sickle cell anemia to creating a species of fly that has coexisted with its parasites for so long that it cannot reproduce without them – and on more recent, economic timescales – like using parasitic wasps to reduce pests on cassava crops in Africa. He describes different physical scales as well – from parasites as tiny as a virus to those as big as the cuckoo bird or guinea worm. You’ll also get a good treatment of the human immune system and how parasites exploit its quirks. It’s really weird and interesting to realise that all this is going on around you – and it’s something pretty different to what I learned in standard Biology at school.
Carl Zimmer is quite a famous science writer who has a real gift for making complex subjects both easy to understand and truly fascinating to read about, and I’d certainly recommend his work to anyone looking for an introduction to a topic – the bibliography and footnotes are great places to look for other sources of information. The book only assumes a very basic level of understanding of genetics and should be pretty accessible from even GCSE Science. If you’re interested in any type of science and want to read about something you’ll never normally cover at school, give this book a go.
Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer