Pump: A Natural History of the Heart by Bill Schutt

c.2021, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
$26.95 / higher in Canada
288 pages

By Terri Schlichenmeyer
The Truth Contributor

Your heart pounded so hard, you could hear it in your ears.

Blood rushed to the parts of your body that could help carry you away from the danger, adrenaline flowed in your veins, and extra oxygen came to the rescue. All this from a little scare; this, thanks to that organ inside your chest. Proof, as in the new book Pump by Bill Schutt, that you gotta have heart.

Biologist and former American Museum of Natural History research assistant Bill Schutt is fascinated by hearts.

And why not? There’s a lot to that piece of exquisite machinery we carry around in our chests from pre-birth until we die. There’s plenty to say about it, including that not all living, breathing creatures bleed red, and tickers come in many sizes. This book, in fact, begins with a blue whale heart, a rare specimen that was larger than Schutt himself. There, he explains why a tiny mouse has a higher heart-to-body ratio than you do.

But size isn’t everything: many creatures’ tickers aren’t what we’d expect when we envision a “heart.” Some creatures have open circulatory systems, while ours are closed; to get oxygen into the body, some use gills rather than nostrils. Around the animal kingdom, even the shape of that pump can vary widely and some creatures, says Schutt – like insects, for instance – simply lack what we’d call a heart.

But back to you.

Once upon a time, Aristotle thought that the brain was only around to cool the heart, like an HVAC system in your head. The Egyptians had funny notions about the heart, too, and they were careful to embalm them separately from the rest of a body. Until the eighteenth century, physicians thought that blood carried the essence of its owner’s personality – a tame belief, as compared to the practice of blood-letting as treatment for pretty much any ailment. And as for you, brush your teeth, no snow shoveling, and watch what you eat.

Your heart – your very life – will thank you for it.

Hard to believe that your entire existence relies on a scrap of muscle the size of your fist, isn’t it? And yet, your heart can’t do it all by itself; it takes a whole lot more to ensure that you’re alive – so much so that Pump isn’t only about your heart.

Nope, author Bill Schutt bobs and weaves through biology and science, writing about blood and lungs almost as much as he does about his title topic, with side-trips happily encouraged. That’ll please an Armchair M.D. – there’s a heavy load of sometimes-near-physician-level information scattered here and there – but it can be daunting for the not-so-science-minded reader. Still, don’t fret: science should be fun, and Schutt packs this book tight with holy-cow tidbits from several -ologies, crammed between time-machine peeks at medicine, funeral practices, giraffes, mummies, and monkeys.

So brush off your Biology 101 knowledge, and settle in. Here’s a rabbit-hole of cardio delight for sciency readers and the curious alike, and that means Pump can’t be beat.