Get the key ideas from

A Planet of Viruses

Why one of the best science thinkers alive says viruses are essential for life

By Carl Zimmer
10-minute read
Audio available
A Planet of Viruses by Carl Zimmer

A Planet of Viruses (2011) takes you on a whirlwind tour into the hidden world of viruses. You’ll discover how our understanding of these tiny, abundant organisms has evolved over time and how our lives are influenced by them, from their power to kill to their protective properties.

  • Anyone curious about where diseases come from
  • Anyone interested in biology
  • Anyone interested in the science behind medical treatments of viruses

Carl Zimmer is a columnist for the New York Times and a lecturer at Yale University, where he teaches how to write about science and the environment. He writes for National Geographic and is the author of thirteen books, including Parasite Rex and Microcosm.

Go Premium and get the best of Blinkist

Upgrade to Premium now and get unlimited access to the Blinkist library. Read or listen to key insights from the world’s best nonfiction.

Upgrade to Premium

What is Blinkist?

The Blinkist app gives you the key ideas from a bestselling nonfiction book in just 15 minutes. Available in bitesize text and audio, the app makes it easier than ever to find time to read.

Discover
3,000+ top
nonfiction titles

Get unlimited access to the most important ideas in business, investing, marketing, psychology, politics, and more. Stay ahead of the curve with recommended reading lists curated by experts.

Join Blinkist to get the key ideas from
Get the key ideas from
Get the key ideas from

A Planet of Viruses

By Carl Zimmer
  • Read in 10 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 6 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
A Planet of Viruses by Carl Zimmer
Synopsis

A Planet of Viruses (2011) takes you on a whirlwind tour into the hidden world of viruses. You’ll discover how our understanding of these tiny, abundant organisms has evolved over time and how our lives are influenced by them, from their power to kill to their protective properties.

Key idea 1 of 6

The common cold has been a nuisance for thousands of years.

The common cold is a relatively harmless, but rather annoying sickness we’re all forced to deal with now and again. Our parents had it, our great-grandparents had it, and even our most ancient ancestors had to deal with fevers, coughs and runny noses.

The common cold is typically caused by the rhinovirus, a virus that was a nuisance to the Ancient Egyptians too. In the 3,500-year-old medical text Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian scholar documents the symptoms of “resh,” including a persistent cough and excess mucus in the nose. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

While the symptoms of the common cold in ancient times match what we see today, methods of treatment have changed considerably. Egyptians were given a rather sensible prescription of herbs, incense and honey to apply around the nose, whereas the Romans were convinced that rubbing a mouse around their nose was the best way to defeat the sniffles!

History also provides us with a range of wildly different explanations for the common cold. Ancient Greeks chalked it up to an imbalance of the four bodily fluids, i.e., blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. Seems rather unbelievable now, but the common cold’s cause eluded physicians even up to 1900, when physiologist Leonard Hill posited that colds were caused by moving from hot air to cold air, the way you might do when taking a morning walk.

Fortunately, scientific research from the early to mid-twentieth century helped uncover the true cause of the common cold. We now know that the rhinovirus is responsible. So do we know how to defeat it?

Despite centuries of experimenting with different remedies for the common cold, we still lack a fool-proof cure. The answer may lie in attacking the genetic code of the virus. But it’s worth asking whether we should bother finding a cure in the first place. After all, the rhinovirus and other harmless viruses teach our immune systems to react appropriately to benign infections, making it better able to deal with viruses that are serious threats to our health.

What are these deadly viruses? That’s what we’ll find out in the next blink.

Upgrade to continue Read or listen now

Key ideas in this title

Upgrade to continue Read or listen now

No time to
read?

Pssst. Sign up to your secret to success: key ideas from top nonfiction in just 15 minutes.
Created with Sketch.