I'm really happy to be a part of Download the Universe, a new group blog dedicated to reviewing science e-books and apps. No dead trees allowed. It fills a long-ignored niche, helping readers find high-quality science writing in the digital realm, and my partners in this little side project are all top-notch. Download the Universe will feature reviews written by best-selling authors like Sean Carroll and Deborah Blum, new media gods like i09's Annalee Newitz and Not Exactly Rocket Science's Ed Yong, and some of the best science journalists at work today.
The whole thing was organized by Carl Zimmer, who also wrote the most recent review on the site—all about Controlling Cancer: A Powerful Plan for Taking On the World's Most Daunting Disease, by Paul Ewald.
Ewald's basic thesis: What if cancer is really a virus? We know that viruses do cause some cancers. For instance, most cervical cancer is pretty definitively caused by the human papillomavirus. But Ewald theorizes that this virus-cancer connection could be a lot further reaching than we now think—and it could have profound impacts on how we treat and prevent cancer in the future. The document is published by TED Books, and Zimmer says it bears the pretty obvious imprint of the TED brand—really provocative ideas that may or may not be correct, but are definitely fascinating.
[Ewald] has long been an advocate for putting medicine on a solid foundation of evolutionary biology. In the 1990s, for example, he came to fame for his ideas about domesticating infectious diseases. The deadliness of a parasite can evolve, and in some situations, it may pay for parasites to be milder instead of meaner. He went on to argue that many supposed chronic diseases--from heart disease to schizophrenia--are triggered by pathogens. Ewald's work has been mostly theoretical--extrapolating from what we know about evolution in general to diseases in particular. His ideas are tough to test, if only because our bodies are so complex. But they have certainly been influential, as scientists have developed better tools for detecting microbes in our bodies and probe their effects on us.
Controlling Cancer is a quick read, without any photographs, videos, or other ornaments found on other ebooks. It does include footnotes, where Ewald back up most of his points. The citations are a good thing, but sometimes it's hard to tell when Ewald citing well-established cases of pathogens causing cancer and when he's only pointing to suggestive hints. The scientific literature is loaded with papers in which researchers describe tumors brimming with viruses. These associations could be evidence of viruses triggering cancer, or they could be evidence that tumors are good places for viruses to breed.
Read Carl Zimmer's full review of Controlling Cancer
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Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.