Thursday, January 26, 2023

Picaresque History of Science

Rats, Lice and History
Rats, Lice and History 

But however secure and well-regulated civilized life may become, bacteria, Protozoa, viruses, infected fleas, lice, ticks, mosquitoes, and bedbugs will always lurk in the shadows ready to pounce when neglect, poverty, famine, or war lets down the defenses.   - Hans Zinsser, Rats, Lice & History

Zinsser's book, published in 1935, can be read as a modern adaptation of Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy. It provides the reader with a picaresque description of how typhus outbreaks have influenced human history. In the days before antibiotics, he issued a challenge against germs that is still relevant today: "Infectious disease is one of the few genuine adventures left in the world." The lance is rusting in the chimney corner and the dragons are all dead. The war against those ferocious little fellow creatures, which lurk in dark corners and stalk us in the bodies of rats, mice, and all kinds of domestic animals; which fly and crawl with the insects, and which fly and crawl with the birds, is about the only sporting event that has not been negatively impacted by the relentless domestication of a once free-living human species.

Even though this book was written almost a century ago, it hasn't become any less interesting or funny. Hans Zinsser has created an eccentric view of history, rambling about rats, typhus, the Roman Empire, lice, and everything. You can't read it in one sitting, because you'll have to keep taking breaks to calm down from the experience. I liked the book because because I learned so much - this book is a classic microbiology textbook among other things. My favorite foonote was associated with a word I'd never heard -- it said, "If the reader does not know the meaning of this word, that is unfortunate." That gives you an inkling of what is in store for you if you choose to read this book.

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