Review: Immune: A Journey into the Mysterious System That Keeps You Alive by Philipp Dettmer

By JT Menard

There’s a joke about immunology which appeared in an article I read a few years ago. The author of the
article, Ed Yong, credited it to Jessica Metcalf, a professor and researcher at Princeton. To (very) roughly
paraphrase the original joke, “a cardiology and an immunologist are kidnapped. Their captors promise to
spare whichever doctor can prove they’ve made a greater contribution to society. The cardiologist tells
them of his work in creating a life-saving heart drug that has been used by millions. The kidnappers,
impressed, turn to the immunologist, he begins, “well, let me start by saying that immunology is a very
complex field,” to which the cardiologist interjects, “just shoot me now!”


The point of the joke being, of course, that our immune system is an incredibly complex conglomeration
of interwoven systems, each performing a specific task to keep your body safe from foreign invaders,
and it is very difficult and oftentimes boring to explain its functioning on a technical level. For most of us
our immune system does an admirable job and we do not need to know or even think about the
particulars of how it protects us until we get sick. But sometimes our immune systems become
compromised for various reasons. An underlying health condition or a new medication may temporarily
or permanently suppress its ability to work. Other times, our immune systems become overzealous in
identifying harmless objects, such as peanuts or pollen as existential threats and this zeal manifests itself
as allergic reactions which can be varying levels of annoying and uncomfortable, or in worst-case
scenarios potentially life threatening.
Given that a person can spend their life trying to understand the immune system and still not know
everything—new research is being done all the time—how can the layperson possibly hope to
understand what is happening inside their own body?
Philipp Dettmer’s “Immune: A Journey into the Mysterious System That Keeps You Alive” is not a perfect
book but it is a great primer to get a basic understanding of a very complex topic. Dettmer is the creator
of Kurzgesagt, a popular science education YouTube channel which he has been running since 2013. If
you’re an actual immunologist you’ll find that “Immune” is not for you and Dettmer admits as such, but
for everyone else, it’s a simple and entertaining primer into the war that rages on inside of you every
day. The language is kept as simple as possible and full-color illustrations help visualize the microscopic
processes of the immune system. Dettmer also includes an exhaustive bibliography for those skeptical of
the book’s assertions or who want to learn more or view the source material for themselves. For better
or worse the bibliography is not actually included in the book, it is instead hosted on Dettmer’s website.
We’ve had to think about our immune systems a lot more than normal over the last few years. If you’re
interested in learning more “Immune” is a suitable introduction for adults and older teenagers to this
vast and complex system, and perhaps it will make you want to see out other sources of information,
too.