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New Books Take You Through the Microscope to the World of Pathogens

Zaman considers the impact of microbes globally. Meanwhile, Hamblin’s new book, “Clean,” is an ode to the invisible world laid out between his toes and in his armpits. Hamblin focuses on the skin, including that of his own body. Just as Pasteur and others revealed that some microscopic species could be dangerous, and long before antibiotics were discovered in the early 20th century, it became clear that lives could be saved through simple interventions that helped reduce the abundance of those dangerous species.

Hand washing has saved hundreds of millions of lives, as has the availability of drinking water that is free of pathogens (conversely, the lack of access to such drinking water endangers millions still today). The goal of these interventions is not to make hands sterile (one can’t) and to make water sterile (almost none is), but instead to control problem pathogens. But the cosmetics industry and other purveyors of solutions and creams came to recognize, as Hamblin documents, an opportunity to sell products and lifestyles that not only removed all germs but, just to be on the safe side, offered total and complete cleanliness as a goal. This, Hamblin concludes, actually just made us rashy and sick in new kinds of ways. And so begins the odyssey upon which Hamblin embarked.

While trying to understand his own skin, Hamblin stopped bathing, though he did still wash his hands and drink clean water. He does not use his personal experiment as evidence, so much as a way to drive the narrative. The writing is fun, interesting and credible, that of a science journalist trying to make sense of the biology of bodies and how they work in daily life. If Zaman’s book is about war, Hamblin’s is more about finding ways to make

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