Science books to peruse this pandemic winter

Sonia Shah, Rita Colwell, Luke O’Neill and Fergus Shanahan inform and delight

With the shorter evenings closing in, it's high time to stock up on reading material. Maybe you want to escape thoughts of Covid-19 entirely. But if you can't quite park it, Pandemic by Sonia Shah elegantly charts how past pandemics have shaped – and been shaped by – history.

Science journalist Shah expertly weaves stories of how human diseases and history are intertwined through transport, sewage, climate change, crowding, corruption, fear and sometimes a collective forgetting before the next big one. I read a pre-2020 edition of Pandemic that didn’t deal with the as-yet-unknown Covid-19. This made the book even more compelling in some ways, because I was reading it knowing what the next big one turned out to be.

Cholera echoes through the book, and Shah writes about the work of US scientist Dr Rita Colwell, who looked at where the bacteria that cause cholera live between outbreaks of disease. Colwell's research found the microbes can live on tiny plankton in seawater, blasting apart the assumption that cholera-causing bacteria could survive only in human hosts and their waste.

Burden of bacteria

Colwell's work on marine microbiology highlighted how climate change could affect human disease. She helped to develop new ways of tracking cholera bacteria in the environment to predict outbreaks, and she even found evidence for the viability of a simple and practical solution in affected areas of Bangladesh: filtering water through folded sari cloth to reduce the burden of bacteria.


Colwell brought out her own book this year. In A Lab of One's Own, written with Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, she outlines her career to date as a researcher, as a problem solver who helped solve the mystery of who sent anthrax spores through the US postal system in the early 2000s and as a shaper of the scientific research landscape. She was the first female director of the National Science Foundation in the US, and for many years she was on the board of Science Foundation Ireland.

It’s a stellar career that almost didn’t get going – when Colwell looked to get support for her graduate work in bacteriology, she was told they didn’t waste fellowships on women. One can only admire the persistence of Colwell, who doesn’t mince her words about the institutional sexism she and her female colleagues overcame.

Pal in the pub

Someone else who doesn't mince words is Prof Luke O'Neill, whose latest book Never Mind the B*ll*cks Here's the Science has been storming the bestseller charts in Ireland. O'Neill is a familiar voice in Irish media, and many will know the immunologist's down-to-earth, pal-in-the-pub style of delivery. In this book he brings his wit to bear on subjects as diverse as vaccination, free will, philanthropy, addiction and environmental destruction among others.

Given his academic background, O’Neill understandably focuses many chapters on health, medicine and related topics.

In The Language of Illness, gastroenterologist and researcher Prof Fergus Shanahan takes a deeper dive into the words and phrases that doctors, carers and patients use, the harm and benefits they can bring and the gulf between doctors talking about a disease and patients speaking of the lived experience of illness.

Doctor-patient conversation

Shanahan draws from many wells for this fascinating and beautifully written book. It is peppered with references to literary and artistic works as well as examples from his own experience. He explores the changing nature of the doctor-patient conversation, which has been shrinking in time and is often accompanied by the computer screen; the trust that language can build or destroy; and the value of “chit chat” that can uncover details important for clinical diagnosis, for the patient’s quality of life, or both.

In a timely chapter on the language of plagues and pandemics, Shanahan reflects on the new “corona-speak” such as “social distancing” and “flattening the curve”. As a founder of APC Microbiome Ireland, a Science Foundation Ireland centre dedicated to researching the microbiome, he is familiar with the micro-organisms that abound in the world, and he borrows from the singer Madonna to state that we live in a microbial world (as well as a material one).

“When pandemic viruses come along, they remind us of the fragility and interconnectedness of life, and humankind’s delicate relationship with nature,” he writes. “Like other microbes, pandemic viruses tell us much about human behaviour.”

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation