i've got you under my skin:
the life and times of a pathogen

Biography of a Germ
Arno Karlen
(Pantheon, 178 pages)
biography of a germ
buy it
This elegant little book should be completely unnecessary in an era when science and technology are popularly supposed to rule our lives, and dictate the progress of culture and society. Karlen’s book is, instead, a neat little primer on the life cycle of a tiny micro-organism - one amongst millions - that pushed its way into our consciousness for a brief moment.

While West Nile Virus might be the disease du jour right now, not long ago it was Lyme Disease, a debilitating affliction that was all the more sinister for its tendency to strike in affluent suburbs, especially those being built in the fashionable intersections where city and country meet, and at hikers and hunters in leisurely, expensive pursuit of nature. The cause of Lyme Disease is ultimately - after the disease has been tracked past the deer and rodents that act as hosts for the tick that gives the bite that passes the disease onto us poor humans - a tiny bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi, a remarkably hardy little creature that appears under the microscope as a pale, rather attractively-shaped spiral. With familiarity and some degree of fondness, Karlen nicknames his subject Bb.

Karlen coyly calls his book a biography, giving him a chance to ruminate on the implications of writing the life story of a creature tinier than a dust mote, and whose span on the earth goes unnoticed by us unless we become ill. He takes us on a tour of Bb’s habitats, introduces us to its relatives, and narrates a parallel story of the scientists who had to struggle for centuries, waiting for the invention of microscopes and modern biology, discarding one theory after another and slowly, painfully, pulling together disparate findings before finally tracking down Bb

Karlen ends his story not with Bb’s apprehension and punishment, but with the sober observation that creatures like Bb are as much a part of nature’s vocabulary as we are - perhaps more so, as his description of its survival mechanisms demonstrate. As a primer on science, medicine, biology, nature and ecology, Karlen’s book describes the pitiless wonder and of the world we live in, and the breathtaking logic we’ve only begun to glimpse in nature, with rare economy.

©2000, 2002 Rick McGinnis