Infection: The Uninvited Universe

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9780312348465: Infection: The Uninvited Universe

We use antibacterial soap to wash our hands, we swab doorknobs with antibacterial wipes, we pop antibiotics at the first sign of disease - all to avoid infection. But we are all infected. From before birth to after death, infection is what makes humans human. In a startling, chilling, and inspiring narrative, veteran microbiologist, and author Gerald Callahan, explores the world of the microscopic creatures that live on, in, and around us. Did you know that: our overuse of antibiotics is placing us on then cusp of a resurgence of diseases we had thought long conquered? and, many ailments - from schizophrenia and gastric ulcers to obsessive-compulsive disorder - are now being linked to infections? Infection will awaken you to the microscopic brethren that ensure our health as well as take it from us. For better or worse, infection shapes our lives.

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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One 
Infections: Where We Get Them
 
Henry Perry raises his wineglass to his nose and inhales the rich scent of the claret. Across the rim of the glass he stares into the startling blue eyes of the young woman he bought for tonight. She is dressed in lavender, and her auburn hair falls onto bare shoulders. Henry hasn't seen such pale and perfect flesh in months. Her name is Adrienne, and she smells of musk. She smiles at Henry as his eyes swallow her.
 
He is enjoying himself. For the past six months he has fought trench foot and Germans in the mud at Soissions. But not tonight. Tonight, Henry's uniform is only for show. His eyes and his nose and his mouth, even his bravery, are for Adrienne only.
 
Henry places his wineglass next to his linen napkin.
 
"You are a lovely woman, Adrienne."
 
"And you are a lovely man," she says to Henry in words wrapped in the syrup of her French.
 
Henry laughs nervously.
 
But she is right. Henry is young, blond-haired, and tall. The weeks at war have thinned him, and now he is shaped more like a man than a boy. His uniform, by some monumental accident, fits him perfectly. Tonight, Henry's long arms and legs seem just right to Adrienne and the others who have noticed the young American and his escort.
 
The waiter, in his clipped French, interrupts to ask Henry if he would like more wine. Adrienne translates.
 
"Tell him I do," Henry says to her. "Tell him I want all the wine he can bring. And then I want you."
 
Adrienne tells the waiter to bring one more bottle of wine. Beneath the table she adjusts her stockings and straightens her skirt. She reaches across the table for Henry's hand. Oddly, she finds a nugget of eagerness inside her own stomach this evening. How surprising, she thinks.
 
The waiter arrives with another bottle of wine and uncorks it as they both watch. He fills their glasses and leaves.
 
The lights here are dim, the carpet and curtains thick, the food spiced. Before the war, lovers came here often to sit in dim corners beneath dark wood and eat from one another's forks.
 
And that's what those who surround Henry and Adrienne imagine them to be, lovers. But these others, with their own reasons and purposes tonight, are wrong. Henry and Adrienne are not lovers. Theirs is a practical arrangement. Henry and Adrienne have agreed on the cost of love, and it is too high. Both are here for something else, something less expensive, something a soldier on a short furlough can afford. Or so they think.
 
Everything Henry sees is just as it should be this night. The room, the candlelight, Adrienne, her dress, her ears, her mouth, her neck. The thick red wine and the salty food. Outside, even the darkness seems dressed just for Henry and Adrienne.
 
The things he cannot see, Henry has decided to ignore. There is so much to leave behind--the Germans, the trenches, pieces of people in the mud. Not tonight.
 
Tonight, Henry will fill his eyes and thoughts only with Adrienne.
 
Who could blame him? But in the end, that choice will cost Henry his life.
 
"Is it time?" he asks.
 
"Nearly," she says.
 
Neither of them expects any of this to last beyond tonight. That is what they have planned. That is what they have agreed upon. But there are others here tonight, making plans of their own.
 
 
By the time I met Henry, he could no longer speak in complete sentences. He couldn't walk the fifty feet or so across our backyard without jerks and staggers. Sometimes he drooled. These were Adrienne's gifts.
 
Henry was living, then, at the VA hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah. Every Sunday afternoon, my father would gather him up in our family's Ford station wagon and bring him out to our house in Bountiful for dinner. Henry seemed to like that.
 
Henry was my mother's brother. She and her mother, who lived with us then, had arranged for Henry to be moved from the VA hospital in Kansas City to the VA in Salt Lake City so that he would be closer to them.
 
His eyes were still piercingly blue, his hair still blond, though mottled with gray, and he still had the whippet-thin frame of a soldier. But the rest was no longer Henry.
 
In spite of his peculiarities, or maybe because of them, I enjoyed my uncle. He cursed and spat and wore soiled clothes, all of which I admired. But even I could see that something about Henry was not right.
 
More than once I asked my mother to explain Henry's peculiarities, but it wasn't until long after his death that she told me the truth. Henry had syphilis. For my mother, that was like a slap in the face. Syphilis was a disease of the poor, the deviant, the unwashed. It was a sickness that fell upon the godless as punishment for their sins.
 
Syphilis, of course, isn't punishment for anything. It is a disease caused by a bacterium--Treponema palidum--a little curlicue of catastrophe known as a spirochete. T. palidum moves from person to person during the most intimate of human acts. Wounds, torn tissues, cracked skin are all open doors for syphilis.
 
That night in Paris, another was sitting at the table with Henry and Adrienne, one no human could see, but one who knew full well that this was not to be a one-night stand. Even Adrienne's eagerness that night was fired by the bacterium. The next morning, as Adrienne stayed behind in her small flat overlooking the Rue Michelet, the spirochete left with Henry.
 
Fleming's penicillin wouldn't come along for decades, so over the years, T. palidum had its way with Henry. First, there was a minor wound, a chancre, not at all painful. And then it went away. Henry was relieved. Later, a rash spread across Henry's palms and the soles of his feet. He assumed it was left over from the trenches of France. Headaches followed. Then the spirochete took Henry's joints--his knuckles, his knees--then it took his eyes, his spine, and his mind. When there was nothing more to take, T. palidum took my uncle Henry's life. After all, Henry had dared to take a night off from the war and a moment's pleasure from a beautiful woman in a simple flat one night in Paris.
 
A microscopic curl of protoplasm, overlooked in the frenzy of lust.
 
When I finally understood what happened to Henry, I was shocked. Not because Henry had acquired his disease during an act of illicit love, but because of the immensity and the voracity of his infection. The idea that something as tiny and as simple as a bacterium could so unrelentingly and so easily take both a man's mind and his life scared me.
 
That, of course, changed nothing. A single child's fear was of no consequence to the dominant form of life on planet Earth.
 
That's simply how things are.
 
Henry was my uncle. But Henry's story is not unique, not nearly. Bacteria are the most numerous living things on Earth. Everything on the face of this planet, living or dead, has been changed by bacteria--the color of our skies and seas, the air we breathe, the soil beneath our feet, our immune systems, our digestive systems, and each and every human cell. Infection is the way of life. We owe everything we have to bacteria.
 
The Bacteria That Make Us Human:
Our Normal Flora
 
I read a science fiction story once in which space travel for humans was possible only when men and women were disassembled into their component cells and stored in vats of salt water. In this way, while rockets accelerated to the enormous speeds needed to reach distant planets during anyone's lifetime, the effects of the massive g-forces were diminished. At the end of such trips, a very complicated computer would suck up each man and each woman from their tubs of brine and reassemble them into human beings.
 
One young woman, faced with the prospect of dis- and reassembly, expressed considerable concern over the computer's ability to put her back together properly. And worse, she wondered if the computer erred whether she would ever know.
 
To assure herself of accurate reconstruction, she asked a male friend to go over her body very carefully before and after the space flight. Not surprisingly, he agreed. And in the end, he concluded that the woman was herself once again. This reassured her. But the man's assertions were meaningless. There was no way he could possibly have known if she was or wasn't the same woman.
 
Each of us is made from billions of little bits of life. In an average person, there are about 1.1 x 10 14 of these bits. That's 1.1 with thirteen zeros after it. 1.1 x 10 14 is roughly equal to the number of seconds in three million years, twenty thousand times the number of people on Earth, the number of thimblefuls of water in five cubic miles of ocean, or the number of grains in a hundred thousand cubic yards of beach sand. A lot of bits. We call these bits of living things cells--skin cells, red blood cells, white blood cells, liver cells, nerve cells, epithelial cells. Certainly 1.1 x 10 14 is more pieces than any man could verify in a lifetime, regardless of how earnestly he might try.
 
But let's suppose the young man could have checked every single cell in the young woman's body (after all, this was science fiction). When he did, he would have found something startling. After their long space flight and biological metamorphoses, he would have found that the woman's body contained nearly ten times as many bacteria cells as human cells. And if, as he panicked over this discovery, he had checked his own body, he would have found that most of his cells were also bacteria. Imagine their horror. Imagine the setback this would have dealt space travel if word of it had leaked out.
 
But the bacteria inside both of them had nothing to do with their space flight. Though we don't often notice it, every human is mostly bacteria. In an average human body--e...

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