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A Planet of Viruses Hardcover – September 15, 2011

ISBN-13: 978-0226983356 ISBN-10: 0226983358 Edition: 1st

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Editorial Reviews


"Part of a series sponsored by the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) to help support educational outreach to students, [A Planet of Viruses] packs into 109 pages just about everything you’ve always wanted to know–and a lot you’ll probably wish you didn’t know–about the viruses that have caused humanity so much grief throughout history."—Forbes


"For those with long memories, not much seems to have happened in fundamental physics and cosmology since Carl Sagan's Cosmos, 30 years ago. . . . The real action is in biology, where amazing new facts just keep coming. The techniques of genome analysis make it remarkably easy at the moment to make unexpected observations. [A Planet of Viruses] is packed with them, carefully assembled by another talented populariser, the science writer and Yale University lecturer Carl Zimmer."—Times Higher Education
(Times Higher Education)

"Science writer Carl Zimmer has a penchant for writing about things most humans like to avoid; his previous works include Microcosm: E. Coli And The New Science Of Life, and Parasite Rex. Each chapter of his latest work is dedicated to a different type of virus, providing a brief synopsis on what makes a certain species unique, and using the example to launch into fascinating information about what it teaches about the nature of viruses and life in general."
(A.V. Club)

“Absolutely top-drawer popular science writing. . . . Zimmer’s information-packed, superbly readable look at virological knowledge awakens readers to the fact that not only are viruses everywhere but we couldn’t live without them."

(Booklist (starred review))

“A smart, beautiful, and somewhat demented picture book that's likely to give you a case of the willies. In the best way possible."

(Maggie Koerth-Baker Boing Boing)

“Carl Zimmer is one of the best science writers we have today. A Planet of Viruses is an important primer on the viruses living within and around all of us—sometimes funny, other times shocking, and always accessible. Whether discussing the common cold and flu, little-known viruses that attack bacteria or protect oceans, or the world’s viral future as seen through our encounters with HIV or SARS, Zimmer’s writing is lively, knowledgeable, and graced with poetic touches.”

(Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks)

“I’m a serious fan of Carl Zimmer, and A Planet of Viruses provided a new treat. It’s thoughtful, precise, and engrossing, page by page. Zimmer has an uncanny ability to tell cool tales about nature that leave you with new thoughts and understanding, always keeping precisely to the science.”

(Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone)

“This little book will interest anyone on this planet who has ever played host to a virus. It is beautifully clear, eminently sensible, and fascinating from beginning to end—like everything Carl Zimmer writes. I don’t know how Zimmer does it! Neither does anyone else who follows and enjoys his work.”

(Jonathan Weiner, author of Long for This World)

“An accessible and gripping narrative on a serious topic that manages to explain, in plain English, how viruses are changing the world. Carl Zimmer has found great stories and woven them into an honest, optimistic book. It is a wonderfully vivid and compelling read.”

(Nathan Wolfe, founder and CEO of Global Viral Forecasting)

"As with any great journey, this virtual tour opens your eyes and expands your horizons. You’ll learn amazing facts. But this is no textbook. Zimmer does not do boring or stuffy; reading his work is like hanging out with the smartest, most interesting guy you have ever met as he regales you with tales of his travels and fascinating finds along the way."—ScienceNews


“I hope Carl Zimmer lives a long, long time so we can get more and more books from him. . . . [A Planet of Viruses is] a short read . . . but intense and well explained.”

(Julia Sweeney)

“A contagious fear pervades the public perception of viruses, and rightly so, because they cause many serious diseases; but they are not all bad. In A Planetof Viruses Carl Zimmer seeks to convey this message, elegantly communicating the history of viruses, their symbiotic relation with life, and their influence on mankind’s development.”
(Lancet Infectious Diseases)

“In A Planet of Viruses, science writer Carl Zimmer accomplishes in a mere 100 pages what other authors struggle to do in 500: He reshapes our understanding of the hidden realities at the core of everyday existence. . . . Whether he’s exploring how viruses come to America or picking apart the surprisingly complicated common cold, Zimmer’s train of thought is concise and illuminating.”
(Washington Post)

“Although most everyone is familiar with the word "viruses," few people are aware of the major role they play as powerful agents of change on Earth. Zimmer presents an intriguing journey into the world of viruses, providing a fascinating historical perspective. . . . This is an insightful book that serves as an excellent resource for understanding viruses and their relationship to humans. . . . Highly recommended.”

“This book is pure reading pleasure. It is amazing how seamlessly Carl Zimmer tells the stories of viruses in short chapters, describing the history, microbiology, and impacts of viruses in interesting, informative, readable chapters.”
(Microbe Magazine)


About the Author

Carl Zimmer is a lecturer at Yale University, where he teaches writing about science and the environment. He is the author of numerous books, including Microcosm; Parasite Rex; Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea; At the Water’s Edge; and Soul Made Flesh. His numerous essays and articles on the life sciences have appeared in the pages of the New York Times, Scientific American, Discover, Time, Science, Popular Science, and National Geographic. His work has been anthologized in both The Best American Science Writing and The Best American Science and Nature Writing series.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 109 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (September 15, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226983358
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226983356
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.5 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (83 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #525,392 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I write books about science. Nature fascinates me, as does its history.

So far, I've written twelve books, including Parasite Rex and The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution. In addition to my books, I also write regularly about science for The New York Times, as well as for magazines including National Geographic and Wired. I've won awards for my work from the National Academies of Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. My blog, The Loom, is published by National Geographic Magazine (http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/blog/the-loom).

Customer Reviews

Well written and very informative.
C. Simmons
I did learn many interesting tidbits, though, and highly recommend the book.
infocoach, EdD
In fact, it is a very interesting and very informative book.
Kurt A. Johnson

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

95 of 100 people found the following review helpful By shipud on April 16, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Interesting things happen when physicists decide to go into biological research. They ask questions that biologists generally won't. For example, viruses have small genomes, but they also have very small storage space in their capsids. Bacteriophages inject their genetic material into the bacteria they infect like a combination of a lunar lander and a syringe. How much force does the coiled bacteriophage DNA have? As it turns out, bacteriophages pack quite a punch. The force required to insert the DNA into the capsid is fairly large, and requires quite a bit of ATP, stolen from the host cells by the infected virus before the cell is killed.

Carl Zimmer's new book, A Planet of Viruses borrows its delivery technique from its subjects: in less than 100 pages, A Planet of Viruses packs quite a punch of information. The eradication of smallpox, the rise of HIV, the immigration of West Nile virus to the western hemisphere, the viruses in our genomes and the recent discovery mysteriously huge mimivirus are all treated here in delightfully short essays describing the impact of viruses on mankind and on life in general. To some of these topics Zimmer brings refreshing perspectives. He proposes that the common cold virus, an unwelcome companion of man since ancient history, should be treated like a wise old tutor rather than an ancient enemy. Then he explains why we haven't truly eradicated smallpox, and probably never will. Viruses, hovering between life and non-life have an impact on life so large it is hard to fathom. Viruses kill about half of marine microbes every day. Their sheer biomass ("...equal to [that of] 75 million blue whales"), huge host range, mind-boggling number of particles in the biosphere and, above all, the genetic diversity which is unmatched by all other life combined.
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42 of 51 people found the following review helpful By WesternWilson on June 5, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I enjoyed this slim, short volume. It was well written and took some interesting directions, but in the end I was disappointed with its "Science Lite" approach. Most people who pick up a book like this are science buffs if not scientists and can take a much deeper and rewarding information load on board. I would recommend this volume for a middle school library, nothing more. That said, I would really like to see what this author can do if he explored the world of viruses on a more extensive, demanding level.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Douglas Marcs on July 31, 2011
Format: Hardcover
I picked the book up after listening to Mr. Zimmer's presentation at the Longnow.org . The concept of the book is great, unfortunately the book is so light in content that I can not recommend it for an adult reader.
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17 of 21 people found the following review helpful By infocoach, EdD on April 9, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Carl Zimmer doesn't disappoint in making a complex subject understandable and thought provoking to his science fans. I especially admire his ability to make concepts easy to understand, such as translating the abstract idea that 10% of the oxygen we breathe was probably produced by viruses into the tangible "Breathe ten times, and one of those breaths comes to you courtesy of a virus." If you have a limited knowledge about viruses, this conversational primer will introduce you to a side of microbes you will want to discover and whet your appetite for more.

My rating of 4 stars indicates a very good read for the viral novice but also reflects my rating for the more knowledgeable reader. I had hoped Zimmer, as a master storyteller, would go into more detail and tell stories about some unusual viruses not already widely discussed in other places. Unlike his 5 star Parasite Rex, where he more fully develops his storytelling and includes unusual organisms, I wanted more. For example, he piqued my curiosity with the story about finding viruses 1000 feet underground, where no other organisms exist within which viruses can replicate, but then fails to elaborate. I did learn many interesting tidbits, though, and highly recommend the book.

Zimmer looks at the history of discovery and the mechanism of the common cold and flu viruses to the cancer causing potential of papillomavirus. Going beyond these common infectious pathogens, Zimmer shows us how ubiquitous (and mostly harmless or beneficial) viruses are from oceans and the Mexican crystal caves, deep within the earth, to the inner sanctum of the human genome. He makes a good argument for how important the tiny virus is to the macrocosm of the globe.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Gary Schroeder on September 17, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is my first foray into the writings of Carl Zimmer. Given its extreme brevity (because it's actually a collection of essays), I know that it's not necessarily representative of his other books which, based on this one, I'm looking forward to checking out. Three stars only because it's a solid and edifying treatment of a somewhat arcane subject, not some kind of action thriller.

"A Planet of Viruses" is a whirlwind review of what viruses are, how they were first isolated as pathogens by 19th century scientists, how they've integrated with all life on earth and what hazards they pose. Why is any of this interesting? Mostly because viruses are simply _weird_. As shells of protein housing a few strands of DNA, they seem like little more than microscopic blocks of matter, unable to replicate on their own. Seems like the very definition of inert matter. And yet, by using the cells of living bodies, they "trick" those cells into doing the replication for them. Through sloppy, imperfect replication, they gain new genetic material and thus evolve. Is that "life"? Do they qualify as living organisms? See what I mean by "weird"?

This is merely an introduction to viruses and their fascinating oddities. Unlike the treatment you might expect from some popular science authors, this is not a terror-fest. Zimmer's intent is not to send you into a "Contagion"-style panic (with follow-up movie script). But after reading it, you'll understand how viruses work and have a greater appreciation for the crucial role that they have played (and continue to play) in our mutual co-evolution.
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