Book Review: A Planet of Viruses by Carl Zimmer

Review by Tina Hesman Saey

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Reading a book about microbes leaves no doubt about who is in charge: They are. Some of Zimmer’s previous books have placed parasites and bacteria at the top of biology’s pecking order. In his latest book, they are viruses. The tiny microorganisms that challenge our notions about what is alive are found in every nook and cranny on Earth, making this truly a planet of viruses.

Zimmer’s collection of essays takes readers on a guided tour of some of the wonders of this viral world, from ocean-going to bacteria-eating viruses, plus stops for the world’s biggest virus and viruses that put horns on rabbits. There’s also plenty about humans in sections on HIV, the common cold, influenza and other viruses that infect and inhabit the human body.

As with any great journey, this virtual tour opens your eyes and expands your horizons. You’ll learn amazing facts. But this is no textbook. Zimmer does not do boring or stuffy; reading his work is like hanging out with the smartest, most interesting guy you have ever met as he regales you with tales of his travels and fascinating finds along the way. He does get a touch preachy when he admonishes doctors and patients alike for using antibiotics to treat the common cold. (Antibiotics kill bacteria. They are useless against viruses, such as those that cause colds.) But it’s worth sitting through that one small lecture to hear the rest of the stories.

This is a short book with bite-sized chapters. But like viruses, these essays pack a lot of information into a small structure and will infect you, in this case with a desire to know more.

Univ. of Chicago Press, 2011, 109 p., $20