The first place I turned to in my effort to learn the basics of immunology was a text that I already owned. Called "Molecular Biology of the Cell", it is a massive tome that weighs over 7.5 pounds and spans 1600 some odd pages. Its multiple authors are among the most distinguished members of the scientific community. Beautifully illustrated and carefully edited, it is the standout in its field. Unfortunately my copy is ancient. It's from 2002. There are newer editions, but they are expensive ($130 for a hard copy of the latest edition, 2014). I decided to be profligate and purchased the Kindle version which is considerably cheaper. Chapter 24, the last one in the book, is entitled "The Innate and Adaptive Immune Systems". A quick perusal showed that I needed to begin with something a little less daunting. I searched Amazon for books on immunology and read reader's reviews. It looked like a book by Lauren Sompayrac, "How the Immune System Works", fifth edition, 2016. provided a more gentle introduction.
Sompayrac has a doctorate in physics from MIT. Like many other physicists, he turned to biology after earning his degree, ultimately landing up at the University of Colorado. He retired twenty years ago and has taken up writing. His book begins with a chapter called "Overview". Its first three paragraphs sets the tone. "Immunology", it begins, "is a difficult subject for several reasons". He explains. First, its full of details. Second, there are lots of exceptions. Third our knowledge of the subject is incomplete. Finally, there are many players that interact with each other in complex ways. Given these difficulties, his purpose in this first chapter is to present the big picture, a quick tour of the entire system so that the reader can see how everything fits together.
It all sounded perfect. Just what I needed. In subsequent chapters he writes that he aims to fill in the details. At just 138 pages (without the glossary and index) and replete with illustrations, it looked like it was a book that I could begin with. Here are my first impressions.
While well written and profusely illustrated, the book falls into what I call the "jargon jungle". That is, it introduces too many terms too soon. I counted 41 technical terms (they're in bold and colored red) in the first chapter, which is supposed to be an overview. Of course, some technical terms are unavoidable. But what could be avoided is giving them what are properly called "initialisms"; a sort of abbreviation formed from the first letters of a term. For example, Sompayrac uses "APC's" for "antigen presenting cells", and "MHC" for "major histocompatibility complex". Again, there's nothing inherently wrong with this practice. It saves space. The difficulty stems from the fact that a term is defined on one page and used for a second time two pages later. By the time I get to the second use, I've forgotten what it stands for!
One other quibble. Some of the analogies are a stretch. For example, he compares the innate and adaptive immune systems to a shoe store. Some shoes are off the rack and some must be made to order. The analogy works, but I can think of others that seem more natural.
In the next installment, I'll describe some additional references that I'll be using as my learning adventure progresses.