NON-FICTION: FANTASTIC VOYAGE

24 May 2020

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The Discobolus of Myron, a Greek sculpture of an athlete throwing the discus, created about 460–450 BC
The Discobolus of Myron, a Greek sculpture of an athlete throwing the discus, created about 460–450 BC

The most fascinating thing about our seemingly unassuming but wholly remarkable planet is simply our very presence on it. The Earth’s ability to host life makes it the most special rock in our galactic neighbourhood, and life itself is perhaps the biggest wonder our universe has to offer. The fact that a handful of elements come together to form conscious, living, breathing, fully functional — and, occasionally, even intelligent — human beings, is nothing short of a miracle. And it is this incredible human form that is the subject of Bill Bryson’s The Body: A Guide for Occupants.

From the award-winning, bestselling author of A Short History of Nearly Everything and At Home: A Short History of Private Life, this new book is an entertaining and enlightening tour of our inner workings, taking a look at how we function and, more disconcertingly, malfunction.

The book offers an insightful discussion on anatomy, delving into the workings of the different parts and elements that make up a human, including the circulatory, respiratory, digestive, nervous, endocrine, immune, skeletomuscular and reproductive systems. Bryson gives readers a concise explanation of how each facet of the body works and how different organs come together to give us the ability to perform everyday functions and survive in an environment that often proves to be all too hostile.

Despite our resourcefulness, our species remains susceptible to various health problems, so alongside details on how it works, Bryson also sheds light on how the human body falters. A number

of ailments, ranging from issues with pathogenic, genetic, evolutionary and even self-inflicted causes, are discussed. Our design flaws are analysed and the impact of our unhealthy lifestyles is often highlighted.

An award-winning author writes an accessible and entertaining book, chock-full of facts and historical anecdotes, that captures the wondrous nature and failings of the human body

The book also sheds light on how, over the years, we have developed an understanding of both the functioning of the body and the diseases that plague it. We read about how patients in the past were subjected to painful, ineffective and sometimes even counterintuitive remedies, and learn about the work of dedicated researchers whose tireless efforts led to improvements in medical science, from which we benefit today and without whom we might still be suffering from what are now either preventable or treatable maladies.

It is disheartening to see how many of these remarkable researchers have been all but forgotten over time, especially by the general public. It is a peculiarity of our global culture that we shower those who entertain us with disproportionate wealth and attention, while overlooking those who have worked painstakingly to improve our lives. The Body will hopefully inspire readers to find out more about the likes of such people and offer them the gratitude they so rightly deserve.

Bryson provides a starting point to do just that, informing us about pathologist Theobald Smith, who discovered the causes of several infectious and parasitic diseases; geneticist Nettie Stevens, who discovered the X and Y chromosomes and the fact that males determine the gender of offspring; and neurophysiologist Charles Scott Sherrington, who helped shaped an understanding of the body’s nervous system. There is also surgeon William Stewart Halsted, who created the first formal surgical training programme in the United States, and microbiologist Albert Schatz, who discovered the antibiotic streptomycin, which is used to treat bacterial infections such as tuberculosis, pneumonia and influenza.

Bryson also places much emphasis on the point that we are a long way from understanding the many mysteries of the human body; we are repeatedly reminded of how much we still don’t know. Nonetheless, it is amazing to learn how far we have come — only a couple of decades in some cases — and astounding to discover how recent many scientific discoveries have actually been.

It is plain to see that a lot of research has gone into this book. The writer speaks to, and quotes, leading experts in various fields and relays their take on the areas in which they specialise. The historical anecdotes he digs up are downright fascinating and, perhaps, the most interesting part of the volume. However, given the plethora of diseases and microbes mentioned in the book, perhaps this may not be the best reading option for germophobes and hypochondriacs. If, for instance, the fact that we have “about 100,000 microbes per square centimetre” on our skin makes a prospective reader shudder, they might be better off picking up something else to peruse.

On the other hand, readers who are not squeamish will be riveted by all the trivia that The Body has to offer. The pages are chock-full of facts about the human form and filled with tidbits that capture the wondrous nature of the body. My favourite snippet, if anyone is interested, is that according to estimates, every day “between one and five of your cells turn cancerous and your immune system captures and kills them.” How amazing is that!

Most readers will probably be familiar with much of the basic science discussed here, especially if they studied biology in school, are avid fans of popular science, or have ageing parents, which — as it turns out — is a most unexpectedly effective way of learning about the body and its shortcomings. Even so, this book will serve as a useful refresher, reminding us of things that may have slipped our mind. The science has been made accessible for the layman, thanks to Bryson’s clear, simplified and often wry and congenial writing style. And while this may not be the most comprehensive or deepest book one can find on the subject, it is a rewarding read and terrific starting point for those who want a basic understanding before they dig deeper.

There are parts, however, that may be a little hard to retain for the casual reader, especially when scientific terms are listed. For instance, the cornea in the eye, we are told, has five layers: “epithelium, Bowman’s membrane, stroma, Descemet’s membrane, and endothelium.” Around the eyes are “the glands of Krause, Wolfring, Moll, and Zeis, as well as nearly four dozen Meibomian glands in the eyelids.” One would need either a pretty sharp memory or a bit of conscious effort to retain not just those terms, but a lot of other things mentioned in the tome.

All in all, however, The Body is an informative journey into human biology and Bryson makes this stroll not only entertaining, but also wondrously fascinating. The book is likely to leave readers will a sense of marvel at our design, motivate them to learn more about their physical form, and perhaps even inspire them to live a better, healthier life.

The reviewer is a Lahore-based freelance writer and critic

The Body: A Guide for Occupants
By Bill Bryson
Doubleday, US
ISBN: 978-0385539302
464pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 24th, 2020