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Tucson Weekly Small, Small World

Out of sight, out of mind?

By Gregory McNamee

MAY 18, 1998: 

A Field Guide to the Invisible, by Wayne Biddle (Henry Holt). Cloth, $25.

A WEIRDLY FUN if sometimes unappetizing inquiry into the unseen world of microbes, germs, and deities, this little almanac by popular-science journalist Wayne Biddle offers an Allergens-to-Zeitgeist series of smallish essays, "necessarily severe distillations," about the things that lie beyond our immediate senses and that are thus, if out of sight, also out of mind.

Biddle delights in turning up little facts that make fine fuel for did-you-know party conversation: The average adult, for instance, breathes 13.5 kilograms of air each day, about four times more in weight than the food and water he or she ingests. If all photosynthesis were to cease tomorrow, the Earth would still have an 8,000-year supply of oxygen. If you turn your back to the wind, low pressure will always be to your left side, high pressure to your right. A scream can indeed make someone's "blood run cold," inasmuch as loud noises can lower blood pressure and heart rate.

Along the way, Biddle addresses such perennial matters of interest (at least to a certain kind of reader) as farts, burps and cooties: The first is the product of "nefarious methanogens," while the last describes the horrible bearers of typhus--to say nothing of schoolboy terrors. Biddle urges that such things be not too much feared; as he writes, in this instance of bad breath, "bacteria...cannot be escaped, household disinfectants notwithstanding.... Nothing is more natural than meeting a microbe. It's their scene."

It's their scene indeed, and Biddle does a fine job of making it meaningful to his readers. His book adds up to little more than an assemblage of scientific and cultural factoids and gross-out trivia--which makes it just right for bright teenagers of an inquiring bent, and for collectors of useless information everywhere.


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