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Sometimes I’m lucky enough to stumble across small treasures and this collection of the short works of Richard Feynman is a gem.
For those of you not familiar with Richard Feynman, he was a physicist who shared the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on quantum electrodynamics. While he passed away in 1988, his scientific legacy as well as his impact on the world of ideas remains.
This book contains reflections on his wide ranging and impressive career that included working on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb (BEFORE he got his PhD). For anyone with a curiosity about the Manhattan project and what life was like there as a scientist, his unique insights into the inner workings of the project are fascinating. His account of being the only person to view the Trinity test without blackout glasses (he looked through a car windshield) and what came to his mind while witnessing this new power that he had helped to unleash is a moment that we should all reflect upon.
This entire work is worth reading, but specific chapters are of note. Any budding scientist should take the time to read his 1974 address to the graduating class of Caltech where he describes what he terms “cargo cult science” and the dangers of pseudoscience. His minority report to the space shuttle Challenger inquiry for NASA shows how willing he was to challenge institutions and hold them accountable to true scientific standards. Finally, his reflections on the role of science in society as how science and religion relate demonstrate a more philosophical viewpoint than one might expect from a physicist.
I highly recommend this book and think that any person who enjoys science can enjoy this collection of short works.
For this installment of book club I am happy to introduce The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance by Laurie Garret.
Written in 1994, this is an impressively well researched work on the current microbiological topics of the time. While this book is almost 20 years old, I was very impressed by how many of our current problems in health care were covered in these 620 pages and how well the content has held up to the passage of time.
What is even more impressive is how the author narrates the stories, giving a more human side to the factual recounting of disease outbreaks that most of us in the microbiology community are familiar with.
This book is arranged so that each chapter covers a specific disease or theme. Notable chapters on exotic pathogens include those on Bolivian Hemorrhagic fever, the Ebola virus, Lassa fever, the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in 1976, and the Hantavirus outbreak in the 4 corners region of the United States. These are all fascinating chapters as many of the people who were present for these events were interviewed and there is a real sense of the fear and confusion that accompanies the outbreak of unknown diseases.
These chapters also show “disease cowboys” in action during these outbreaks, scrambling to find out the causative agent or vector for these diseases. As someone who has just learned how to work in a Biosafety level 3 lab I can only imagine the difficulty involved in doing any kind or research in the field, let alone in with diseases that are known to be highly lethal.
The author does an excellent job of showing how environmental, social, and political factors drive the emergence of disease in human population. No other chapter covers this intersection quite as well as well as her work on the early years of the HIV epidemic. With 30 years separating me from this period in time it is easy to not think about how we got to where we are today with HIV; during my life it has always been here. It was eye-opening to see just how badly the epidemic was handled by politicians of the day or how distinguished scientists could fight so readily over discoveries relating to this new viral plague.
Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a more in-depth and extremely well written take on the challenges we face against the invisible armies of microbes that continually surround us.
“A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on”
-Charles Haddon Spurgeon 1855
How many people do you know who haven’t vaccinated their children out of fear of giving them autism or mercury poisoning?
Have you or do you plan to vaccinate your own children?
Where did this fear of vaccines come from and why does it persist despite vastly overwhelming data pointing to their safety?
Why are we suddenly seeing outbreaks of diseases such as measles and whooping cough, diseases that we had thought controlled in this country decades ago?
If you have ever thought about these questions go get a copy of The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin and start reading. This is an incredibly well-researched volume not just on the science behind the vaccine-autism controversy, but on the swell of emotions and public opinion that have allowed this claim to bleed over into mainstream culture and persist despite volumes of rigorously peer-reviewed research debunking the myth time and again. The importance of this movement from a public health standpoint cannot be understated, in some parts of the country we are dangerously close to losing herd immunity to many pathogens due to falling vaccination rates. We are currently seeing outbreaks of diseases in the US that have been effectively gone for decades: measles, whooping cough, HiB, and other pathogens are coming back and hitting the growing unvaccinated populations in our country.
Read on for a review of this well-written look into the vaccine-autism controversy… Continue reading
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Today I’ve been thinking about all of the influences that have made me so passionate about scientific literacy and effective science communication. As a global society we are challenged daily with obstacles that can most effectively be solved using our modern scientific understanding of the world. Yet for a variety of reasons much of the general public is unaware of the startling leaps and bounds generated by the modern global scientific community, aware but misinformed by sloppy reporting, to downright distrustful of science and those involved. While we could go into these various issues and their origins at length, I would rather take a moment and share some of the resources that have pushed me to share my love of science with the public in the hopes that I can spread my passion for scientific communication to others. Continue reading
As a young woman working in microbiology I often think about HPV (human papillomavirus) and its impact on women. Thanks to decades of research we have discovered that HPV is a causative agent of cervical cancer (and other cancers, but that’s another article). Even more impressive is that there is now a vaccine designed to protect against the types that most commonly cause cancer, serotypes 16 and 18. This is great news for a generation of young women who will not have to know the torture of cervical cancer and losing their ability to bear children that their mothers and grandmothers faced. Even my own family has been touched by this disease and I am very thankful that, thanks to modern diagnostics and surgery, my loved one is still here with me. Incredibly, all of these advances can be tracked to one woman who unwittingly changed the face of medicine: Henrietta Lacks, or HeLa, as she is now known.
Read on to find out more about this woman and the fascinating book that has been written about her impact on modern science. Continue reading