No hiding under desks this time

The last time science made a leap forward with our understanding of incredibly small objects it ended with Hiroshima and Nagasaki — not to mention either the nuclear Cold War, which lasted almost a half-century and the nuclear proliferation that continues to this day. The atom was, until 1932, almost the thing of myth until James Chadwick was able to accurately describe the physical presence of a neutron, proton and electron and their relationship to the mass of each atom in the Periodic Table. Coupled with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and that famous formula, it was a brief hop, skip and a jump to the first nuclear reactor and the A-bomb. 

What’s changed since then? Different elements have been used for the runaway reaction, different compounds used to contain the reaction and harness it, fission or fusion, but in essence that teeny, tiny, particle called the atom has been harnessed and has irrevocably changed the world — for good and bad.

Now we’re on the brink of a similar fundamental change in life as we know it. A woman — who was denied a Nobel Prize simply because she was a woman — Rosalind Franklin — was a genius who harnessed X-rays to be able to see crystalline structures and even all the way down to molecular structures including viruses. Without her on their team, James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Watkins would never have been able to claim to uncover the secrets that are embedded in DNA. Everyone in the field of biology and chemical science knows it was her work that showed the way forward and exposed the helix of DNA. But today, Rosalind Franklin’s work is once again at the forefront of a revolution that is sweeping the planet: Virus research.

Forty years ago, Russian scientists wanted to drill into a frozen lake, miles beneath the ice in Antarctica. Like a frozen primordial cesspool, the primitive bacteria, mold and viruses there could unlock secrets of evolution. Calm scientific heads prevailed and they never did tap that ancient water. Fifty years ago, men first stood on a celestial body other than Earth. When they came home, they were encased in a sealed, purified, sterilized metal home for 30 days in quarantine — even though they had stood on the lunar surface devoid of any air or water, the risk to all humanity was too high. One pathogen alien to our planet’s defenses could end all life on Earth.

Today, scientists across the planet from the WHO in Geneva to the CDC here, to almost every nation on Earth, are probing the benefits and dangers of pathogens like viruses. Some viruses will be used to enhance delivery of cancer-fighting agents, some will be harnessed to tackle diabetes. And some will be mishandled or handled as weapons.

In any event, like the discovery of the atom’s properties and the quick harnessing of those possibilities, viral research and new fields of benefit and danger are quickly presenting themselves. COVID-19 may well prove — once again like the successful lesson of SARS — that governments need permanent, capable systems in place to respond to these pathogens before we all perish. Like the early atom bomb age, shelters, staying at home and hiding under desks is not the answer. 

Prevention, research, negotiation and mutually asserted inspection and prevention is key. Let’s hope the next administration renews those WHO and NATO ties and get that preventative ball rolling once more, or else the next pathogen may overwhelm civilization as we know it.


Writer Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now resides in New Mexico.

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