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Immune: a Journey into the Mysterious System that Keeps You Alive

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A gorgeously illustrated deep dive into the immune system that will forever change how you think about your body, from the creator of the popular science YouTube channel Kurzgesagt—In a Nutshell

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 epic war is being fought, just below your skin. Millions are fighting and dying for you to be able to complain as you 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 defenses. 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 into an element of the immune system, including defenses like antibodies and inflammation as well as threats like bacteria, allergies, and cancer, as Dettmer reveals why boosting your immune system is actually nonsense, how parasites sneak their way past your body's defenses, how viruses work, and what goes on in your wounds when you cut yourself.

Enlivened by engaging 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. Immune is a vital and remarkably fun crash course in what is arguably, and increasingly, the most important system in the body.

341 pages, Hardcover

First published September 28, 2021

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About the author

Philipp Dettmer

5 books206 followers
Philipp Dettmer is the founder and head writer of Kurzgesagt, one of the largest science channels on YouTube with over fourteen million subscribers and one billion views.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,102 reviews
Profile Image for Scott Carney.
Author 22 books311 followers
November 21, 2021
FIRST THE GOOD: This is the simplest explanation of the immune system that I've ever come across that doesn't gloss over the startling complexity of the innate and adaptive immune responses. Dettmer uses simple metaphors to visually explain impenetrable terminology so that even a lay person can understand what is happening. MHC Class II receptors are hotdog buns, antigens are hotdogs, MHC Class I molecules are portholes into the cellular machinery. These simple visualizations really help, as do the illustrations that pull from the brilliance of the Kurgzesagt channel. I also loved the footnotes that delve into fascinating asides and yet keep the overall story (can you call it a story?) on track.

THE LESS THAN GOOD: Once Dettmer was done explaining the immune pathways--about three quarters of the way through--some of his takeaways start to lose focus. This is because his intensely reductionist lens that focuses primarily on pathways, has trouble taking in the big picture. It's not exactly Dettmer's fault--this is the way that every immunology textbook and class I've come across also treats the topic. But it leads to a really strange cyclical logic.

For instance: throughout the book he writes that the immune system is absolutely not conscious--and that immune cells are basically mindless robots whose amazing adaptive properties emerge out of mechanical complexity. And yet he (and every immunologist I've met) can't resist anthropomorphizing cellular action--by calling macrophages angry, having one cell tell another to do something, communication across the system, recognizing self and other, and a hundred other examples. Somehow cells "make decisions" and also are "mindless robots". In this framing, the adaptive and innate immune system is just an assemblage of parts, which I think misses the point that it's all connected to an unarguably conscious human. Just because we (sort of) understand how those parts fit together doesn't mean that absolute reductionism is the only way to understand it--indeed, as he demonstrates, we don't even have the language to discuss how an unconscious immune system functions.

This becomes problematic when he begins to scale up to takeaways. For instance, the book takes casual aim at the wellness industry by suggesting the very idea of "boosting" the immune system is on its face nonsensical and even dangerous. Then, on the very next page (p281 para 3) he writes "working out also directly boosts your immune system", contradicting the thesis of the chapter. Then he says diet doesn't really matter as long as you eat sensibly. But what sensible eating means is lost in a casual wave of the hand. His point does stand that there are a lot of people who take advantage of scientific sounding language to sell products, but that really requires a medical anthropological lens more than the tight focus on receptor chains.

In the section on "Stress and the Immune System" he makes another major error. He correctly notes that stress suppresses the immune system, and how we got here evolutionarily, but then makes a totally crazy statement that the best way to counteract that effect is to further reduce external stress. So instead of building resilience by exposing yourself to physical stress so that your immune system doesn't react to it so strongly, the suggestion is to further retreat from the world so that when some external force does act on the body you're not ready for it.

IN A NUTSHELL: Overall this book is excellent. I'd recommend it to absolutely anyone who wants to try to understand all the moving parts of the universe inside your body that keeps you alive. The takeaways should be taken with a pinch of salt.

WHY ONE STAR?: Simply because you, dear review reader, probably sort by one star reviews to see the worst criticism and that's a little unfair. Five star reviews are often too enthusiastic to be taken seriously, and one star reviews are usually too angry to be useful. He already had more than enough 5 star reviews to have a nice rating overall and I wanted this review to be useful. In truth, this is a very good book.
Profile Image for Petra on hiatus, really unwell.
2,457 reviews34.4k followers
January 27, 2022
Review Measles vaccination is far, far more important than preventing the disease. Our immune system has a library of all the illnesses we have faced and has an arsenal of weapons against them when an intruder from one of these diseases comes calling. It stops it in its tracks most of the time. But measles entirely destroys that library, all that built up immunity from colds, flu and all the other bugs that assailed us up until that moment are gone. You are now vulnerable to them all over again. I didn't know this about measles. For some it might mean only some more colds and flu, for others it might mean facing really dangerous diseases again.

Don't believe the Andrew Wakeley crap about autism - he was a) paid to find issues among only 11 subjects and b) he had developed his own vaccine which if the triple vaccine was discredited his might be the first one of choice and he would have made millions. As it was, to all except conspiracy theorists and those who grasp at straws, his work cannot be replicated which is the gold standard of research, because it was fake and he was struck off the medical register.

I had measles when I was very young. It was hell, light hurt, skin hurt, throat hurt, head hurt, non-stop scratching and a feeling of such awful unwellness that only sleep brought relief. My brother had it the same time as me. I remember my mother sitting in the upstairs hall in the centre between our quite-far-apart bedrooms belting out stories at the top of her voice to try to at least distract us. I wouldn't put anyone through that, and I wouldn't want anyone's library of immune responses destroyed at any cost.

Notes on reading 10 star read. I have learned a lot. Measles are not what they seem, the idea of boosting the immune system is a scam at best, a very, very bad idea at worst (even if you have the knowledge how to), and what works to stay healthy and what doesn't (positive attitude is not necessarily good advice) and the not very beneficial side effects of a Caesarean birth. The book is 10 star brilliant and I understand at least 75% of it on first rereading including rereading paragraphs endlessly. I have to write a proper review so I can remember these things myself and pass on the best of what I've learned.

I always thought i knew about the immune system - white cells, T cells, the spleen, bone marrow, lymph.... That's like saying I thought I knew all about car engines because I know where the dipsticks for their 'bodily' fluids are and can pump up the tyres. This book is so complex, I have been reading and rereading for the last week.

One thing I have learned is if I have a fever and do not need to control it for any reason (like work or going to store with a (Covid) temperature detector) I will never again take acetaminophen to control it. A raised temperature makes viruses very unhappy, they prefer to infect and replicate (millions per hour) at a normal temperature; the whole of the immune system revs into high gear with a high temperature and a minor benefit - you burn up more calories :-)

I also for the first time heard of the complement system, a complex immune system of more than 30 different proteins, that is not part of the immune system that I thought I knew about. This book is absolutely excellent, heading for a 10-star.
Profile Image for Allyson Dyar.
333 reviews38 followers
July 30, 2021
When it comes to books on medical subjects, I tend to be a snob. Consequently, it is rare that I will give a medical book a five star rating (last one was Emperor of All Maladies) but this book deserves it.

To say that I loved this book is an understatement. Immunity is a very complicated subject because this is the human body we are talking about and our immunity system has to protect us against all invaders. To do so, our body has evolved a very complex system of ways to defend our bodies and trying to decipher it can be a daunting process. I’ve tried over the last few months to learn the complexities of the immunity system but every time I thought I understood it, I’d read more into the subject and become confused all over again.

Author Philipp Dettmer has not only managed to explain human immunity but makes it fun. So many science authors take their subjects very seriously – which they should – but there is nothing wrong than having fun with the subject and Philipp has a ton of fun.

This book is for those who are interested in the subject but don’t know where to start as well as those seasoned veterans who are interested in a fun read.

I cannot recommend this book any higher.

[Thank you to NetGalley and the author for the advanced ebook copy in exchange for my honest and objective opinion which I have given here.]
Profile Image for Woman Reading .
437 reviews288 followers
July 19, 2022
4 ☆
For a microorganism you are an ecosystem waiting to be conquered.

Non-scientist but "science communicator" Philipp Dettmer fought a battle with cancer and thus became curious about humans' immune system. His ethusiastic admiration resulted in Immune: a Journey into the Mysterious System that Keeps You Alive.

Our immune system is exceedingly complex, and Dettmer declared at the beginning that he would massively simplify everything. His barebones descriptions of the cellular components of the immune system were dressed up in colorful metaphors and similes. Of the 40 trillion cells in the human body, (an unspecified number of) billions of them comprise the immune system as macrophages, neutrophils, dendritic cells, T-cells, B-cells, and natural killer cells (yes, this is its actual medical name). This is far from a complete list, but these are the cells that he emphasized the most in this book. Dettmer frequently anthropomorphized the various soldiers of our immune system.
Your body is wrapped in an ingenious self-repairing border wall that is incredibly hard to pass and that protects you extremely efficiently. If it is breached, your Innate Immune System reacts immediately. First your black rhinos, Macrophages, huge cells that swallow enemies whole, appear and dish out death. If they sense too many enemies they use cytokines, information proteins to call your chimp-with-machine-gun Neutrophils, the crazy suicide warriors of the Immune System. Neutrophils don't live long and their fighting is harmful to the body because they kill civilian cells. Both of these cells cause inflammation, bringing in fluid and reinforcements to an infection, making a battlefield swell up. One of the reinforcements is complement proteins, an army of millions of tiny proteins that passively support the immune cells in their fight and help mark, attach to, main, and clear enemies. These powerful teams together are enough for most small wounds and infections you encounter.

This excerpt is only a partial description of our Innate Immune System; humans also have an Adaptive Immune System. Together the two parts of the immune system are a deadly mechanism so that one can stay in the pink of health as the immune system fends off bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens.
Your immune system has the power to kill you in about 15 minutes.

A healthy immune system keeps itself in check, aiming to preserve homeostasis by successfully distinguishing between self and other. It's not always a straightforward task as things like sperm, tattoo ink, and necessary organ transplants can be rejected and attacked for being other. And sometimes the immune system overreacts leading to autoimmune diseases, allergies, and anaphylactic shock. These special situations were briefly covered in the last third of the book, and I would have liked more extensive coverage here. For instance, the pernicious measles virus will kill all of one's memory T-cells and memory B-cells. This means that the measles virus will completely wipe out all immunity that person had acquired from vaccines and from previous exposure to viruses, bacteria, and the like. [I'm very relieved that I had updated my measles' vaccination status.]

Immune was initially difficult for me to get into despite my interest in the subject. It was due to Dettmer's delivery -- imagine a male teen who loves gaming explain the immune system to a younger sibling. Lo and behold, you get occasional grossness and killing analogies left and right. But as I persevered and also alternated between the audiobook and hardcover, I soon shared Dettmer's enthusiastic admiration for our immune system. The colorfully vibrant illustrations also helped. This is no staid medical textbook, and his descriptions probably created a more lasting impression (and were more fun) than if I had read a more conventional textbook.
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
816 reviews2,589 followers
June 17, 2022
The human immune system is very complex. So complex, that the author starts out by writing, "The immune system is too complicated for you to understand so I'm going to talk down to you." What a statement! And it's true--the writing is definitely easy to understand, because all of the interactions and components are spelled out in metaphors. This puts the concepts in human terms, ones that we all can understand. Just as a couple of examples:
"... the killer T cell is a dude with a hammer that bashes heads in while laughing maniacally."

or this quote:
"The awakening of the adaptive immune system usually begins in the lymph node dating pools, where dendritic cells covered in hot dog buns filled with antigens try to find the right T cells.

You get the picture. He compares bacteria with viruses using a simile; bacteria are like soldiers fighting in open battles at Troy, while viruses are hiding in a Trojan horse. But, to his credit, the author admits when the metaphors start to break down.

The book talks a great deal about immune cells killing themselves. For example, a dendritic cell spends a week or so in a lymph node to activate a helper T cell, before it kills itself.

The end of the book discusses the Covid-19 pandemic. There is a discussion about why some people died from the disease, others recovered with complications, most people had mild symptoms, and some had no symptoms at all. The reason seems to be that people's MHC II molecules are diverse, and they react to diseases differently. This gives the human species a better chance at survival when a terrible plague arrives.

Moreover, when you are looking for a partner, you use your sense of smell to ensure that he or she has MHC II molecules that are different from your own! This also helps to avoid inbreeding. Your partner's immune system is one of the factors that makes him or her attractive to you!

There is some good advice here about how to react to people who claim that they never get sick. Just nod politely and change the subject.

There is some really important information that should make anti-vaxxers think twice about their attitudes. It has to do with the pernicious side of measles. The number of deaths due to measles is increasing rapidly, due to anti-vaxxers. Children who get measles and recover have a greater chance of getting other diseases afterwards. That is because the measles virus kills memory cells. It deletes your acquired immunity. Measles is more highly contagious than the novel coronavirus. Measles also deletes the memories you gained from other vaccines. When it comes to measles, "what does not kill you makes you weaker, not stronger. Measles causes irreversible, long-term harm and it maims and kills children."

There is a discussion about why the immune system sometimes seems to act against your best interests. That is because humans evolved when today's big diseases did not exist. Instead, humans evolved when our worst problems were caused by parasitic worms. The author suggests that "One of the worst things to do late at night is to google infections by parasitic worms. You can ruin your life even more if you click on image search."

There are things you can do to improve your immune system. Stop smoking is number one. If you are obese, lose weight so your internal inflammation is reduced. Reduce your chronic stress, which is a big factor in weakening your immune system. When it comes to "boosting" your immune system, the author writes, "Boosting the immune system is a horrible idea that is used by people trying to make you buy useless stuff!" Luckily the danger is mild because nothing you can legally buy can boost the immune system. What you really want is a balanced immune system. Auto-immune diseases that are so prevalent now, and cancer, have to do with immune systems going out of balance. This book describes how and why. It also describes why allergies seem to be so prevalent in many areas, these days.

I highly recommend this book to all who care about their immune system. It gets rather technical at times, but it doesn't swarm in complexity.
Profile Image for Left Coast Justin.
419 reviews90 followers
January 9, 2022
High literature this ain't, but it is a really well-written introduction to the mind-numbing complexity of the immune system (or systems, really).

Back before COVID, I was spending several weeks a year in China, and spent some time looking for a tutor to help me learn the basics of the language. The first couple of tutors I worked with would talk about how hard it is to learn Mandarin, how Westerners would really struggle with it, and then they'd throw a sentence at me with lots of qi's, xi's and shi's, rising and falling tones, and laugh at my feeble attempts to repeat it back.

"So what does that sentence actually mean, anyway?" I'd ask.

"Oh, something like 'purple cassowary chase in-law from Jupiter airport,'" they responded. In other words, they had no interest in actually teaching me the language, only in demonstrating their greater knowledge. Which, duh.

Dettmer, in contrast, really wants you to learn this stuff, and bends over backwards to make sure you're solidly grounded in one topic before moving on to the next. We start with the least-complicated invaders (bacteria) and gradually work our way up through viruses to parasites. At the end, there's a short section on internal problems, meaning autoimmune diseases and cancer.

This is the first treatment of the subject I've read that didn't leave me thoroughly bewildered. I really appreciate his approach, which includes lots of circling back and reinforcing what we've already learned. And while he acknowledges that the reality is much more complex than what he's presenting, I was grateful for the high-level overview that didn't get bogged down in all thirty-two different classes of major histocompatibility complex molecules, for example.

Some readers will be turned off by the anthropomorphizing of cells and molecules, but I felt it was never a product of sloppiness but rather again in the service of teaching. It is much easier for laypeople to understand

"the B cell wants to know what's going on inside an infected cell"


"transferase pathway mediated by globin 4Dtr4a results in morphological changes to receptor BSA-42 with resultant shifts in..."

With this book behind me, I feel I'm much better able to understand the torrent of information occasionally aimed in my direction, and much better able to explain to people why "boosting your immune system" is not only completely impractical but also a really, really bad idea.

(Shocking surprise ending: The best way to ensure your health is avoid tobacco, eat healthy food and exercise regularly. Never saw that coming...)

Thanks to Petra for the tip-off on this one.
Profile Image for Erin.
76 reviews26 followers
August 23, 2021
The immune system is unfathomably complex, but Philipp Dettmer made it a delight to learn about. Just like the Kurzgesagt videos, this book uses colorful art, clear explanations, enchanting metaphors, and a dash of wit to express the elaborate, beautiful symphony of the immune system.

The stories and compelling metaphors from this book stayed in my mind long after I put the book down. I especially love the image of the dendritic cells carrying a bunch of hot dogs (in buns!) to a singles bar to try to pick up some helper T cells. Somehow this all makes sense in this weird, wonderful book that made me so grateful for my perfectly balanced, intricate immune system. The body is truly amazing.

This book captured my imagination, and I hope Dettmer writes more books like this in the future.
Profile Image for aPriL does feral sometimes .
1,932 reviews438 followers
July 18, 2022
I loved “Immune” by Philipp Dettmer! Not only did he simplify an extremely complex subject of human biology into a 101 introduction, he does so often with military-movie battleground imagery. These snarky word images brought me to immediate understanding of a chemical or biological activity of a cell. It also fixed knowledge in my mind the way a memory palace works. I know some readers do not like snarky humor, but for me, seeing a T-cell as a Navy Seal with either binoculars or a knife or a Neutrophil as a serial killer was WAY good for immediate comprehension! But no worries, gentle reader, the author never veered into fantasy or exaggeration (not very much exaggeration, given the quick lethality of our immune system when it runs wild - see chapter 38 “When the Immune System is Too Aggressive: Allergies”) without a firm foundation of truth in the clarification of functions and purposes of the various cell types.

At first, the book appears to talk down to readers, but soon I saw this was a good thing. The immune system consists of very complex networks with a variety of cells doing different jobs. Dettmer describes the pieces of the immune system in a logical manner. Then, he pulls everything together to show how each piece works with the other segments in the entire human immune system. It was like learning the parts of a car engine (cylinder, air filter, distributor, valve train, lubrication), then having all of those parts pulled together in the later chapters - the result of which is a perfectly-timed running engine! Except when things go wrong - cancer, allergies, viruses which defeat our immune systems like AIDS - Dettmer explains why the immune system fails when it does.

I have copied the book blurb below because it is accurate:

”A gorgeously illustrated deep dive into the immune system that will forever change how you think about your body, from the creator of the popular science YouTube channel Kurzgesagt—In a Nutshell

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 epic war is being fought, just below your skin. Millions are fighting and dying for you to be able to complain as you 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 defenses. 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 into an element of the immune system, including defenses like antibodies and inflammation as well as threats like bacteria, allergies, and cancer, as Dettmer reveals why boosting your immune system is actually nonsense, how parasites sneak their way past your body's defenses, how viruses work, and what goes on in your wounds when you cut yourself.

Enlivened by engaging 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. Immune is a vital and remarkably fun crash course in what is arguably, and increasingly, the most important system in the body.”

Dettmer was diagnosed with cancer at age thirty-two. He underwent operations and chemotherapy. Having cancer led him to read science articles, which led him to beginning his new career as a science communicator/writer. He started a YouTube channel called Kurzgesagt which is dedicated to making information easy to understand. The Kurzgesagt team is now over forty people, and the channel has over fourteen million subscribers (me too). Here is a link to three of the videos on his channel:




To write this book, he consulted with scientists and experts in immunology whom he names in an Acknowledgements section. The book also has an extensive Index section.
Profile Image for Kshitij Dewan.
67 reviews13 followers
December 10, 2021
a beautifully illustrated glimpse of another layer of reality

I LOVED this book. Easily my favourite this year. It filled so many "didn't know I didn't know" gaps.

below are review notes from while I read:

I really like how encouraging the writing is. I feel happy to read more. The frequent summaries and metaphors really help make sense of the concepts

I also really like how the footnotes are presented, that they're formatted so I don't lose my place. Really nice touch.

I was mildly annoyed at the lack of references and in-text citations but there's an online bibliography and reference list - http://kurzgesagt.org/immune-book-sou...

Main takeaways -

T-cells are Thymus Cells and B-cells are Bone marrow Cells :-)

Also, neutrophils are what makes my mucus green and I should expel snot often.

Also TGN1412! Wow!

there's a brief chapter on how stress impacts immunity - I recommend Robert Sapolsky's Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3...) for great further reading on this

Also a brief chapter on COVID! and cytokine storms, and blood clots, and why it affects some more than others

Great book - Highly recommend
Profile Image for Camelia Rose.
674 reviews93 followers
February 20, 2022
At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, my son introduced me to Kurzgesagt–In a Nutshell Youtube channel. He said I’d love it and he was right.

Philipp Dettmer is an excellent science communicator. Through creative analogies, humor and wonderful illustrations, he manages to make medical science sound so fun. He has a gradual way to introduce complex subjects such as the different components in our immune system and their roles and interactions, the difference between antibacterial immune response and antiviral immune response, how measles and HIV viruses attack our systems, etc… A simplified version first, then, more accurate, detailed version later.

The book is great fun to read.
Profile Image for L.L. MacRae.
Author 9 books371 followers
December 28, 2022
“Most of us never really stop to ask: What even is our 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.”

And also, if it goes wrong, it can kill you in about fifteen minutes.

So there’s that.

I love fantasy. It is my perfect escape and often my go-to for a new book. Earlier this year, I discovered I like some flavours of sci-fi, too.

Outside of reading, documentaries are my all-time favourite things to watch. The sciences, in particular, especially anything to do with the natural world. Biology and psychology are two of my favourite subjects and I love learning more about how we work and how the world works.

This fantastic book merges all three loves into something absolutely riveting. It’s made by the creator of Kurzgesagt - In a Nutshell, which is one my my favourite YouTube channels of all time, and makes already interesting science-y stuff EVEN more interesting - especially with easy to understand concepts, palatable language, and a good dose of humour.

I do have an AS level in Biology and I knew the basics of cells and our immune system, but this absolutely fabulous book taught me so much more. As it repeatedly says, everything in the book is simplified and made easier for anyone to pick up and understand. The complexity of the immune system and immunology as a branch of science cannot be overstated.

It was such an incredible journey.

It doesn’t read like a novel, but the way it is written is a very storytelling style, which is highly enjoyable and engaging. The illustrations are wonderful, and if you have seen any of the Kurzgesagt videos, they’ll be familiar. They also work well to break up the text and show more insight as to what’s being discussed.

I actually took a break from a dense, epic fantasy to read this. That is how engaging the book is despite the very complicated subject matter. So please do not be intimidated by the subject matter or the fact it is non-fiction!

I had no idea about so many of the concepts, and even the ones I had a passing familiarity with were greatly expanded. Our immune system is something I feel more of us should know more about, and this book is a great way to bridge that gap. It’s something I think people would love to read and perhaps should read to learn more about what goes on inside of us.

There were a ridiculous amount of poignant lines, paragraphs (and entire chapters, to be fair), and it is laid out in an exciting, easy-to-understand, way that leads easily from one thing to the next.

One of the many footnotes that particularly struck a chord with me was:

“What is generally troubling about these appeals to naturalism is the idea itself, that something natural is somehow better. Nature does not care about you or any individual at all. Your brain and body and immune system are built on the bones of billions of your would-be ancestors who were not fast enough to escape a lion, were killed by a mild infection, or were just a little worse at pulling the nutrients from their food.

Nature gave us charming diseases like smallpox, cancer, rabies, and parasitic worms that feast on the eyes of your children. Our ancestors fought tooth and nail to build a different world for themselves, a world without all this suffering and pain and horror. And consequently we should celebrate and marvel at the enormous progress we’ve made as a species.

While we obviously still have a long way to go and the modern world has a lot of downsides, the notion that “natural is better” is something only people who are not actually living in nature can say, and who have forgotten why our ancestors worked so hard to escape it.”

Overall, a fantastic read. I’ve loved the Kurzgesagt channel for a number of years, and when I saw they were releasing a book, I absolutely wanted to support it. Now I’m recovering from a week-long illness, it felt quite apt to being reading this!

Highly, highly recommend both this, and the YouTube channel!
Profile Image for Betsy.
569 reviews193 followers
June 2, 2022
[1 Jun 2022]
This book starts off saying "The immune system is too complicated for you to understand so I'm going to talk down to you." And it does. I sometimes felt that the author was pitching this book to a twelve-year-old. It's full of metaphors and similes, comparing the immune cells to soldiers and bacteria and viruses are the enemy. You get the picture.

At first this put me off. I know it's complicated and I'm not an immunologist or doctor or any kind of scientist. But I hate being treated as an idiot. I'm a reasonably intelligent adult that can learn new things (except calculus!).

However, it works. The immune system really is very complicated and Dettmer's approach made it understandable. Maybe not totally clear, but reasonably understandable. I began to appreciate being talked down to. Of course, I'd read some about the immune system before, but never in this detail or with this clarity.

Dettmer describes a bacterial invasion of the body and how the two (yes, two) immune systems fight it. Then he discusses viruses and how the immune systems fight those. He spends a little less time discussing failures of the immune system, like allergies and autoimmune disorders. And he has a short chapter on cancer. In fact my biggest problem with this book is that he does not discuss the many immunological treatments for cancer that have blossomed in the last couple decades, including those that essentially kill off the immune system temporarily.

Still I really appreciate being able to read articles like this one -- https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/01/he... -- describing a groundbreaking treatment for pancreatic cancer, and understanding what they were talking about when they mention reprogramming the T-cells. It was great.

I highly recommend this book.
Profile Image for Richard Thompson.
1,973 reviews97 followers
December 8, 2021
On my personal Goldilocks scale of popular science books, this one rated as a Mama Bear. It was too soft. Mr. Dettmer, who is not a scientist, calls himself a science communicator. He's here to dumb it down for us so that anyone can understand the material without having to strain their poor little brains. It's not really that bad though. It's a pretty book and there were a few things that I learned that I didn't know, but the relentlessly popularizing tone made me a little crazy. If I want this kind of presentation, I'd rather get it in 1080p on The Discovery Channel.
Profile Image for Rennie.
330 reviews63 followers
January 8, 2022
Way too much of this still went over my head anyway - in that way where you’re reading the words and understanding them but not grasping the concept. Still! That’s not actually his fault, as he’s one of the best science communicators I think I’ve ever read. I was happy to take from it whatever I could (and pleased at the amount of cell stuff that actually came back to me from high school biology).

I also didn’t expect to be laughing out loud several times while reading this book, but there you go. It’s pretty wondrous.
Profile Image for Peter Tillman.
3,686 reviews347 followers
March 7, 2023
This one is written at high-school level, and doesn't look promising at all. Author is best known for his popular You-tube channel. I'll skim on a bit further, but looks like an early DNF.

Consigned to DNF, finally. I actually returned my copy to the library when it came due, weeks ago. Not for me!
Profile Image for Xavier.
164 reviews59 followers
March 10, 2022
As a huge fan of the Youtube channel Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell (which I cannot recommend enough), I had no qualms about purchasing this book as soon as it was released. Philip Dettmer, the author of this work and the founder and head writer of Kurzgesagt is on a mission to make difficult scientific concepts easy to follow and understand. Although this is my first book on the immune system, I believe Dettmer did a fantastic job and it served as a great primer into the subject.

We are given a tour of the extremely complex and intricate network that is the immune system, with its plethora of moving gears, all working in conjunction to keep you healthy and safe. The cells constantly patrol every part of your body, like a mini military force. Some attack any pathogen that manage to make its way inside your body, others constantly sample other cells, making sure the body is running smooth.

Dettmer repeatedly reminds us he oversimplifies many of these intricacies. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy to follow! One section discussed how cells communicate and how they connect with other cells via proteins called receptors. These descriptions, although dumbed down, were enough to make your head spin. I can’t imagine what a college textbook on the subject would look like.

The book contains gorgeous illustrations, both vivid and colorful. If you’re familiar with their Youtube videos, then the art will be a welcomed sight. My favorite was the magnification of a giant rusty nail penetrating the skin, with evil green pathogens swimming happily into their new home and with the angry immune cells nearby awaiting battle. Also, to supplement my reading, I listened to the audio book on my commute which is narrated by the beloved voice from the videos, Steve Taylor.

I finished this book with a basic understanding and a newfound appreciation for the inner world of the human body. Many of us go about our daily lives without ever realizing that millions of these microscopic cells are fighting and dying for us EVERY DAY. And they are extremely efficient at their jobs. As is the case with autoimmune diseases, sometimes the immune system is TOO efficient, and can easily kill us within minutes. Talk about eye-opening. Next time you get a small cut on your finger or come down with an annoying cold, remember that our cells are engaging in all-out war -- all in the name of YOU.
Profile Image for Kevin.
1,414 reviews67 followers
February 16, 2022
A book that explains how amazing our immune system has developed. Great explanations of how vaccines work, how antibiotics work, how viruses and bacteria work and cancer cells grow.
Why do we have chills? Fever? How does our body fight off pathogens.
When supplement companies claim they are strengthening your immune system as long as you buy their products, they are simply lying!
It’s all here with amazing explanations and visuals.
Profile Image for Bonny.
788 reviews26 followers
November 17, 2021
I've tried to keep my collection of "real books" under control, only buying those that I really want to re-read or are special enough to have a copy at hand. Immune is one of those special books. I was thrilled to be the first person to check out the library copy, and delighted to find that it was a "Goldilocks" sort of book for me. Philipp Dettmer has written this with just the right amount of information - not too much to overwhelm and not too little to dumb down the complex immune system. I had a graduate course in immunology decades ago, but this is one of those subjects that has changed and been added to quite a bit in the intervening time. This is a brilliant book for explaining how the immune system works, how vaccines work, what happens when the immune system becomes too active, and so much more information that we all need to understand. The brilliant writing (with memorable metaphors) and colorful illustrations make this book a joy to read, and highly recommended for all adult humans. I was not familiar with the author's Kurzgesagt (In a Nutshell) youtube channel, but I've spent loads of time watching it this evening.
Profile Image for Jamie Smith.
495 reviews79 followers
November 23, 2022
A few days before I started reading Immune I accidentally cut my finger while dicing an onion, but after uttering a few choice expletives and fishing a band-aid out of a drawer I went back to making supper without giving it another thought. According to Philipp Dettmer, there was a lot going on in those few drops of blood. Each one contained about 250,000,000 red blood cells, 400,000 immune cells, 15,000,000 platelets, and 13,000,000,000,000 antibodies.

The more you know about the immune system, the more amazing it gets: layer after layer of sophisticated defenses, some of them quick reacting and general purpose, to immediately start fighting intruders while the main defenses gear up. Others are slower but more specific, taking several days to analyze the threat and build specific weapons to counter it. This is why you are often sick for a couple of days before you start feeling better, because it takes time for the body to marshal and deploy its full array of defenses.

Most of us have heard about macrophages and Killer T-cells, and we have a vague idea that antibodies are floating around in our blood doing something to help keep us healthy. These are only a few of the different types of immune cells, which trigger and interact with each other in subtle and complex ways.

It can be argued that the most important part of your car is not its engine but its brakes, because while moving is nice, being able to stop is critical. Similarly, the immune system’s most important feature is its restraint: able to effectively repel invaders but not so hair-trigger sensitive that it indiscriminately attacks and destroys normal, healthy cells. For this reason your body’s most powerful defenses must receive a separate confirmation signal before they can be activated, sort of like two-factor authentication for computer systems.

The first line of defense is our skin, and the book has a chapter examining its various layers and how they create an effective barrier to keep bacteria and other threats out. A single millimeter separates the dead skin cells on top from the living ones below, but in that distance multiple stages play out, as the cells are generated and then compress, spread out, connect to each other, forming a tight chemical bond that ensures there are no gaps for invaders to penetrate.

There are multiple levels of threats that the body must be able to respond to. If you get a cut, bacteria swarm in, because bacteria are everywhere, in fantastic numbers. The body is tuned to recognize Self from Other, and since bacteria are clearly Other they are instantly attacked, while other systems work to close the wound and repair the blood vessels damaged by the cut.

Viruses represent a more sophisticated level of threat, because they do their work inside the cells, invisible to many of the body’s defenses. To counter this the cell’s surface is studded with proteins which let the immune system “see” inside, and will order the cell to kill itself if anything is amiss. The cell does not just die, which might release the viruses inside, but slowly folds in on itself, creating pockets that trap the viruses until a macrophage can come along and consume them. Of course, viruses evolve just like everything else, and in their case the generative processes are very sloppy, so that each generation can have new mutations, which means that purely by random evolutionary chance some of them will be better able to defeat the body’s defenses, such as by eliminating the surface proteins that let the immune system examine cell contents.

Worst of all are cancers, because they are the body’s own cells. Even so, the immune system does a good job recognizing and destroying cancer cells, and is doubtless doing so right now somewhere in your own body. However, some cancers are more insidious and harder to detect than others, and as we get older our body’s defenses get weaker and less effective.

Finally, in addition to fighting off threats, the body must remember what it has battled in the past, so it can respond immediately in the future. This, of course, is the fundamental rationale for immunizations, so get those shots. Measles is particularly dangerous, because it specifically targets the cells which hold your immune system’s memories, so not only can it kill you directly – and it is one of the most contagious of all diseases – but it can leave you open to reinfection by pathogens your younger, stronger, healthier body defeated decades ago, and now you have no immunity to them.

The author of this book had to walk a fine line between burying the reader in scientific detail and describing things in such a simplified manner that important topics got glossed over. In general, he does a good job covering all the bases without making the reader’s head spin with biochemical complexity. To do so, however, he adopts an approach which I found jarring. After correctly emphasizing that the immune system’s components are just biological machines doing what evolution assigned them to do, and that they have no agency of their own, he nevertheless describes them in extravagantly anthropomorphic terms, such as “Suddenly a jolt of energy shoots through the Macrophage’s bloated body. In a heartbeat, its spirit comes back and it feels fresh again. But there is something else: A hot, white anger. The Macrophage knows what it needs to do: Kill bacteria, right now!” (p. 99)

Nevertheless, despite this authorial quirk, the book is successful as a general, nontechnical introduction to the human immune system. It does a good job explaining the wondrously sophisticated systems that keep us alive, and its bibliography points to the reader to where to look for more technical information. Life has been a 3.8 billion year evolutionary arms race since the first cells appeared, and in that time a marvel of powerful, ingenious defenses has been created, carefully balanced between aggression and restraint. The fact that it sometimes goes awry and causes autoimmune diseases is unfortunate, but the real wonder is not that those things happen occasionally, but that they don’t happen to all of us all the time.
Profile Image for Richard.
Author 1 book42 followers
September 5, 2023
The job of your immune system is to distinguish what is you from what isn’t, then deal with the “isn’t”—invaders (bacteria, viruses and so on) from the outside world. But it’s also charged with keeping your own body itself in line: “In fact, while you were reading the last few pages, somewhere inside you a young cancer cell was quietly eliminated by your immune cells.”
    This book is a beginner’s guide to the whole subject and is full of extraordinary things. For one, we have two immune systems in a sense: the “innate” part actually fights off pathogens, but there’s also a back-up, the “adaptive” system, which when needed makes the innate much more efficient and targeted. In top gear your own immune response is far more deadly than any germ: for example, even the appalling Ebola virus typically takes six days to kill you; unchecked, your own immune system would do the job in fifteen minutes. So it’s about fine control, about this ferocious biological watchdog giving itself just enough leash and no more; every day you tread the line between the bacterial world on one side and your own Killer T-cells on the other. As extra security, the immune system even routinely uses a form of two-step verification, exactly the way we all have to do these days when shopping online or accessing our own bank accounts.
    Immune is a summary of what your immune system is and how it all works, concluding with chapters covering auto-immune diseases (such as type-1 diabetes), allergic reactions, HIV, stress, cancer and the coronavirus pandemic. As an introduction it both makes a mind-bendingly complex subject comprehensible and avoids machine-gunning readers with scientific jargon. What it’s left me with too, for the first time, is a proper appreciation of this part of us: just like the central nervous system, our immune system is intelligent, coordinated and has a phenomenal memory. The brain gets all the publicity (and self-praise as “the most complex thing in the universe”) but your immune system is no less astonishing. Brilliant book.
Profile Image for Baal Of.
1,243 reviews44 followers
February 14, 2023
This was an interesting follow-up and contrast to Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Song Of The Cell which was my previous non-fiction read. Mukherjee's book is much more academic and formal in tone, while Dettmer leans into story-telling and analogy to help communicate the complexity of the immune system to a general audience. I did find Dettmer's style initially a little bit weird, but in short order I was rolling along with it, and it really did seem to help.
The breakdown of chapters was quite nice, and the illustration were also useful for helping me visulaize the various components. I liked that he addressed problems with anti-vaccination and snake-oil promoters of immune "boosting" supplements.

It is unfortunate that the references for the book are done as a webpage ( https://kurzgesagt.org/immune-book-so... ) without actual references in the text. For example on page 85 he claims: opsonization comes from a Greek word meaning a delicious side dish. But what I'm finding so far on Merriam-Webster for example is "Latin opsonare to buy provisions, cater (from Greek opsōnein)".
Profile Image for Aidan Garcia.
Author 1 book
November 21, 2021
I am on my knees in awe of the power, intricacy, and glorious dance that is the immune system.

I am now informed and very aware of the life and death war that my body wages at every moment. I got a paper-cut a day ago and instantly though of my macrophages and neutrophils getting in there and making short work of those invaders.

Thank you for this incredible journey. I want to learn more. I am hungry for knowledge!

My personal favourite? The dendritic cell. If you don’t have a favourite, don’t talk to me :)

Side Note:

Take a shot every time a cell commits apoptosis.

(If you know you know)
Profile Image for Stetson.
234 reviews161 followers
January 4, 2022
Our current circumstances have dramatically increased the salience of knowledge about the immune system. This, of course, was the case before our interminable once-in-a-century (hopefully) black swan event that is the SARS-CoV2 pandemic, but immunology tends to understandably be an esoteric and intimidating subject to many. Philipp Dettmer performs the yeomen's work of decoding the complexity of the immune systems, providing an eminently clear and accessible primer. Immune roughly provides undergraduate-level coverage of the immune system and appears to be the premier popular entry into this field (from a non-scientist too).
Profile Image for Alexandru.
228 reviews12 followers
November 10, 2022
Great book for those interested in how the immunity system works and who is not willing to go to med school to get a medical degree. The book is explaining in simple terms the types of cells fighting for you inside, how they operate, and what is happening in our body every day, as well as situations when the immunity system fails us. A great read for those trying to make sense of the COVID pandemic and how it can kill us. I am not a fan of the oversimplified style the author uses, but I understand that in this case it was necessary to make the book as accessible for everyone.
Profile Image for Rachel.
1,503 reviews28 followers
April 1, 2022
Apparently I'm in the minority here. But I found the book way too cutesy and condescending. I'd rather learn about how receptors work than hear that cells "smell" each other. There's way too much anthropomorphizing cells and systems, and I am not convinced that military analogies are the most accurate, though they make explaining easy.

An example of, to me ridiculous, mixed metaphors and anthropomorphizing: "The chaos puts the Macrophages [sic on the capitalization] into a rage they have never experienced before. Within seconds, they engage the bacteria in battle and throw their own bodies violently against them - imagine a wild rhino trying to stomp panicked bunnies to death. But the bunnies, obviously, prefer not to be stomped to death and so they flee and try to escape the grasp of this powerful cell. But their escape plan will be in vain, as macrophages are able to stretch out parts of themselves, a bit like the arms of an octopus, guided only by the smell of the panicked bacteria. When they manage to grab one of them, its fate is sealed. The grip of a Macrophage is too strong, and resistance is futile, as it pulls the unlucky bacteria in and swallows it whole to digest it alive."

If you liked reading that, and learned something from it, this book is for you. I made it about 100 pages in and learned next to nothing. I still want to learn more about the immune system, and would like to read something simplified, but not dumbed down.
Profile Image for Susan.
612 reviews
January 1, 2022
Excellent book for the layperson and/or those with autoimmune diseases who have more questions than the medical profession has time to answer.

This is a book worth purchasing for the home library if your specialists do not answer questions well. Phillipp Dettmer has written a user-friendly textbook with charts for the reader. All helpful and easy to understand.

Highly recommend this helpful book.

PS: Fortunately, my specialists have taken the time for explain everything concerning my several autoimmune illnesses (one since birth) and various other health problems. I'm now 73. Seldom do questions arise, but I'm certainly in the minority and feel very fortunate for have chosen wisely when searching for the best medical help, which has been a process in itself.

Don't "settle" for the first physician or specialist. You must be comfortable and able to build a relationship of trust in order to plan your strategies together as a team for your best health! Buy this book to help educate and become a better health advocate for yourself and loved ones. It's that good!
Profile Image for Leila.
150 reviews3 followers
January 25, 2022
This book does a great job of illustrating the function of the immune system in a way that is understandable for a person who slept through a lot of her science classes. There is also a good amount of humor interlaced throughout, and not the cheesy Star Trek friend humor, just...it has its own brand of hilarity that the audio narration really brings out.

I particularly enjoyed Parts 3 and 4, when the book gets into various things the immune system fights against—viruses, allergens, parasites, cancer, itself. I also appreciated the discussion about "boosting" your immune system. The author points you want a balanced immune response, not some oddly targeted thing and the best way to do that is to eat at least "sort of okay", move your body, not smoke, and minimize stress. Which, I think we probably all know at some level, but it's good to see the author isn't using the book to promote some fountain of youth elixir.

All in all, a great look at the immune system if that's something you're interested in.
Profile Image for B | crumbledpages.
502 reviews87 followers
February 23, 2022
In this book he explores the entirety of the immune system and tries to explain how the immune system works to the laymen in a relatively simple language without using much of scientific jargon as much as he can.

Like me, he is super fascinated with the immune system. Unlike me, he actually does research and writes a book about it.

This book is written in a funny way, which is great since it helps to retain the attention of the reader. Unlike textbooks, this book is not boring. Even though this book is highly informative, I laughed quite a few times while reading it.

The author did a great job in explaining the basics of the immune system, starting from the cells of the immune system, then slowly going to mechanisms of immunity.

Plus there are lot of color illustrations in this book that helps us understand the concept even better.

Seriously, how can one not be fascinated with the immune system? It's such an intricate and super COMPLEX system inside our body that fights nonstop to shield us from pathogens and preventing diseases. Without the immune system, we'd literally die because of a simple cold fever. (And people do die like this in unfortunate cases of AIDS)

Overall, I really loved reading this book! I'll highly recommend this book to everyone. This book was highly informative as well as very funny too. Read this book if you want to know more about how complex our body is.
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