An Unexpected Surprise

by Meghan Rosen

Zimmer Origins book image

Dear 3QD Readers:

I had originally intended to post a review of Carl Zimmer’s latest contribution to the world of science writing, A Planet of Viruses, an excellent little book (just 94 pages from introduction to epilogue) that explores the vast realm and long history of some of Earth’s most fascinating life forms. Throughout the book, Zimmer’s knack for imagery helps provide an easy sense of scale (he tries in a variety of different ways, for example, to help readers grasp the enormous number of marine viruses compared to other ocean dwellers: “Viruses outnumber all other residents of the ocean by about 15 to one. If you put all of the viruses of the ocean on a scale, they would equal the weight of seventy-five million blue whales.”), and his focus on scientific research places each chapter comfortably in the space between popular science non-fiction and science textbook. In fact, I’d recommend it not only to those who like microbiology, but also to science educators looking to introduce students to our fascinating ‘planet of viruses’.

My detailed review, however, will have to wait until next month, because I was happily surprised with the early arrival of the newest addition to our family: a baby girl, born on the morning of May 13th. In honor of her birth (who said Friday the 13th was an unlucky day?), I’ve decided to post a review of a wonderful book I read this summer: Origins: How The Nine Months Before Birth Shape The Rest Of Our Lives. It seemed appropriate.


I’m 131 pages into Origins, but was hooked after the first chapter. Annie Murphy Paul has written a book that every woman (expectant or not), father-to-be, scientist, science buff, and lover of babies will want to read. (As a female scientist who adores babies, you can see why it appealed to me.) Paul compiles and distills much of what is known about the environment’s effect on the embryo and relates it to her own experience navigating the murky, ever-changing waters of prenatal care. We follow her, month by month, as she explores the science behind each stage of fetal development.

At the beginning of the book, Paul has just discovered she’s pregnant with her second child; she’s 7 weeks along and only beginning to remember (and worry about) the transformation her life is about to undergo. No drinking, no smoking, no hot baths (I hadn’t heard of this restriction before, but prolonged exposure to high temperatures early in pregnancy can cause birth defects). Even the grocery store is fraught with potential hazards. At times, the litany of purported pitfalls makes one marvel that so many babies are born healthy. But Paul’s focus is not so much the dangers a pregnant woman should avoid, but the positive impact a new mother can have on her unborn baby’s life.

She cites one study that investigated the baby-protecting effects of feeding pregnant mice cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower). The researchers were testing the idea that eating certain foods during pregnancy could defend offspring from diseases. They were surprised to find that pups of veggie-eating mouse mothers avoided cancer, even late into life.

Paul delves into the research behind many popular pregnancy truisms, and debunks the ones not rooted in science. (A couple of glasses of wine per week, for example, are not associated with fetal alcohol syndrome, and cocaine may actually be less harmful than cigarettes). Paul acknowledges that many maternal choices are based in fear, not facts, and promotes the idea that expectant mothers who understand the environment’s in utero impact will be better equipped to make decisions that benefit their children.

Though heavily peppered with experimental data, Origins is approachable, sincere, and endlessly fascinating. Even readers with only a casual interest in human development will appreciate the link between the lives we lead now and the forces that shaped our physical and mental development in the first 9 months of life. I can’t wait to finish.