A Few Thoughts On Ebola

Here’s  few ideas that popped into my head over the past few days about the presence of ebola disease in the United States.  Keep in mind, a lot of the talk about ebola lately is political.  It’s also epidemiological.  I’m not a politician, nor am I a political pundit, nor an epidemiologist.  As a PhD virologist, I studied viruses in the laboratory, so that’s the basic foundation from where my comments come.  Here’s what I think.

First, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta has been criticized for its lax guidelines on what kind of protective clothing persons who are caring for an ebola-infected patient should wear.  But from the point of view of a virologist in the hospital, the hospital should have known better.  After all, we’ve been seeing pictures from West Africa for months of people treating ebola victims there, and they’re dressed in total-body containment suits.  The hospital should have known.  That’s what infection control is for.  I understand the two nurses who contracted ebola while caring for the index patient were not wearing total body protection.  I find it difficult to believe that knowing all we know about ebola, the hospital didn’t insist on total body protection from the very first.

Second, the fact that those two nurses got infected while allowing small areas of skin to go unprotected suggests that somehow the virus penetrated their skin.  Right now, it’s unknown how they got infected.  Perhaps they had small open wounds or sores on the unprotected area of skin, and the virus splashed on that and got through the skin.  But we have to keep in mind that they were only two nurses out of a larger number of people who were caring for the patient.  If the others were wearing the same type of protective equipment, and didn’t get infected, then there’s a question of why only those two were infected.  Or is it possible that ebola virus can penetrate intact skin?  That’s scary.

I got my baptism under fire back in the 1980’s and 90’s with the AIDS virus.  Back then, when we worked with HIV, we assumed that the virus wouldn’t penetrate intact skin.  That turned out to be true.  Now we’re making the same assumption about ebola and perhaps it isn’t true.  This will take some study.

Third, I’ve seen warnings from health officials on TV and on the internet that ebola can be caught only by direct contact with a patient or with a patient’s bodily fluids.  They say that it can’t be caught through food, water, air, etc.  As someone who has done studies with inactivation of viruses in water and buffers, I’m a little suspicious about the blanket statement that ebola can’t be transmitted by water.  I assume, like everyone else, that the ebola virus is inactivated by the chlorine in drinking water.  But a lot of the drinking water in Africa isn’t treated with chlorine, and I think it’s a mistake to assume that the virus can’t be transmitted by water, or even food.  Has anyone done any studies to find out?

Fourth, the fact that we have to use such heavy protective gear while working with ebola-infected patients is a recognition that the ebola virus is one of the most infectious agents we’ve ever seen.  The only virus I can think of that even comes close to the infectivity of ebola is smallpox, and that has been eradicated from the earth.  Marburg fever virus is also very infectious, but it has been kept under control.  I don’t know what the ratio of virus particles to infectious units is for ebola, but it may be very low, possibly in the range of one or two.  That’s also scary.  That means that if ebola virus does somehow survive in water, only a small number of particles can cause an infection.  The fact that two nurses got infected while wearing protective equipment also suggests the ratio is very small.


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All Those Civilizations Out There

I read an interesting article on Yahoo News a few days ago and I thought I’d comment on it.  Entitled “Aliens May Be Out There, But Too Distant For Contact,” it detailed the reasons why we citizens of Earth may have a difficult time communicating and interacting with aliens from other planets.  (Go to the website LiveScience and click the “Space” tab for the complete article.)  The original report was made by Michael Garrett, head of the Dutch astronomical research foundation, ASTRON, who gave this report at the International Astronomical Congress in Toronto recently.  His basic reasoning was that the distances between civilizations advanced enough to communicate with each other are very likely to be much too great for any  meaningful communication.  It’s possible that 3000 or more extra-terrestrial civilizations exist out there, out of approximately 40 billion possible habitable worlds, but they would be distributed throughout the galaxy and the distances between them would be so large as to make communication virtually impossible.  Remember, light and radio waves operate according to the inverse-square rule.  As you get farther and farther away from a source of light or source of communication such as a radio transmitter, the intensity of the waves decreases substantially.  If you double the distance from the source, the amount of light drops by one-quarter.  Triple the distance and it drops by one-ninth.  So, if an advanced civilization exists, say, a thousand light-years away, they would have to have one hell of a transmitter to deliver a signal that would be strong enough for us to, first, detect and, second, recognize when it got here.  Even a civilization a simple 50 light-years away would have to have a huge transmitter. The amount of power they’d have to put into it would be absolutely immense.

Travel between planets that have sophisticated civilizations likewise would be all but impossible.  The nearest star system to Earth is the Alpha Centauri system, a little over 4 light-years away.  That means that traveling at the speed of light a spaceship would take over 4 years to complete the journey, and that’s just one way.  Einstein says it’s almost impossible to travel at the speed of light, so a spaceship traveling at 1/1000 the speed of light (still very fast) would take 4000 years to get there.  That’s grossly unrealistic.  And that’s not even considering a civilization on the other side of our Milky Way Galaxy, which is about 100,000 light years across.  Travel that far isn’t likely.

Some say that a highly sophisticated civilization might travel by wormhole, shortening the distance traveled.  Space-time is curved and shortcuts are postulated to exist between points that are otherwise very far apart.  I suppose wormholes may exist, but they require huge amounts of energy to open, and just aren’t feasible, at least not by those of us living in a civilization whose sophistication in space travel consists of barely being able to get to their own planet’s moon and back.  (Forget wormholes.  They’re good only in science fiction.  I’ve even used them myself in some of my stories.)

In short, I’ve been saying for a long time that I don’t think travel or communication between planetary systems is very likely, and now a report has come out saying the same thing.  The distances are just too great.  No good evidence exists that anyone from outer space has visited us here on Earth, and I can certainly understand why.

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All Those Scientists Out There…

As I mentioned in a previous post this past August, I attended Bubonicon 46 here in Albuquerque, and had a great time.  One interesting topic that came up in one of the panel discussions was the fact that while science fiction writers have been known to predict the development of future objects and appliances, by and large, sci-fi writers are lousy at making future predictions of real objects.  Science and technology always seem to come up with items that no one foresaw or foretold.  Like CAT scans and MRI technology.  So why can’t science-fiction writers figure out the next big thing?  We work in the future.  We should be able to decipher the code to the future, but we just haven’t been able to.  Why not?

I suspect several good reasons exist as to why it’s impossible to predict the future (by scientists themselves or sci-fi writers), and I can’t go into all of them, so for what it’s worth, here’s my explanation: too many scientists.

Every breakthrough in science has to start in somebody’s laboratory (or basement or garage).  Someone makes an observation, small at the time, and publishes it in a scientific journal.  Then that scientist–and others as well–may work on it and develop it until it becomes a big damn deal.  At that point it becomes a real breakthrough and is hailed as the next big thing.  That can take a long time, though, ten or twenty years or more.  Yet, it had to start with a single, simple observation or concept.  Thomas Edison is reputed to have said that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

There are millions of scientists in the world today, most of whom publish papers that wind up in scientific journals.  That’s a lot of papers–millions every year.  No scientist has the time to read all those papers.  Not even close.  As a virologist, I read papers only in my limited field within the overall broad field of virology.  And virology is only one part of the larger field of microbiology, which is one part of the still larger field of biology.  In one year, I probably read less than one percent of all papers published in virology.  A tiny percentage.

In contrast, how many science-fiction writers–currently publishing–are there in the world today?  Maybe a few thousand?  No science fiction writer has the time to scan all those scientific papers to glean the next big thing.  Somewhere, buried in all that science, could be a breakthrough that will lead us to better times for all.  (Or most.)  But where is it?  And not only would that sci-fi writer have to find it, he/she would have to have the intelligence, experience, expertise and training to be able to recognize it in the first place.

Science-fiction writers, like everybody else, see mainly the big things that have come up recently, for example, solid-state electronics; the latest iPhone; the images from the Hubble telescope; the data from the Large Hadron Collider; the emergence of diseases such as AIDS, MERS, and ebola; data from neutrino experiments; the development of small personal drones; and so on.  Extrapolating from these and others is possible, but leads only to an extrapolated future, not a future populated with the “next great thing.”  A good example of that is the talking computer HAL in “2001 A Space Odyssey,” or the computers onboard the Starship Enterprise.  The next big thing is somewhere within that mess of scientific journals, and someone’s going to have to find it.  It’s extremely unlikely.  There’s just too much to wade through.

Read any good scientific journals lately?


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Don’t Never Use A Double Negative

As the title implies, this blog post is about double negatives.  You’re not supposed to use them, right?  Well, most of the time they’re not appropriate.  Generally they don’t sound good, they’re unpleasant to listen to, and so often suggest a limited intelligence or vocabulary, especially if you use them frequently.  Also, we’re told the second negative tends to reverse or countermand the first one, and the double negative really becomes a positive.  In that sense, the title actually means, “Go ahead, use a double negative.”  And that’s what I want to talk about.

In most cases a double negative is bad, but there are a few places where a double negative is useful.  I ran across this when listening to other writers try to answer the question, “Why do I write?”  The writing magazine Poets and Writers has a department that appears in most issues called “Why We Write.”  Most of the writers who contribute to this section have a particular reason to write, such as to tell a personal story, or to memorialize a family member, or some other specific reason.  But there’s also a broader reason for writing, one that I and, I suppose, many other writers have a difficult time addressing.  The usual answer to why we write is, “I can’t not write.”  And the double negative rears it’s ugly head.

Strictly, that phrase, taken at face value means, “I can write.”  But that’s not what we writers who use the phrase mean at all.  Of course we can write.  We’re writers.  It’s our business.  But in the statement, “I can’t not write,” the double negative is appropriate because it states a fact that can’t be stated any other way.  At least not well.  I write because I have stories to tell and I want to tell them.  They’re in me and have to come out.  I feel drawn to the computer keyboard in a way that I’m not drawn to anything else.  At least not since I stopped going to work every day because I was drawn to the workbench in a virology laboratory where I experimented with viruses, trying to figure out how and why they caused disease.  That was quite a draw.  I spent over forty years doing it, and now the computer has become my new workbench.  I can’t not write.

Do you write?  Why?

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As language progresses, some words go out of style.  Some words disappear completely, while some become meaningless, that is, they’ve lost their meaning out of disregard or displacement.  The recent death of Joan Rivers brought this lesson home because she, as well as all other females who tell jokes, was referred to as a comedian, not a comedienne.  I grew up with the latter term, but in recent years it has almost disappeared.  Women who tell jokes or star in comedy movies or TV shows are now female comedians.

Likewise, a woman who stars in a show of any nature is an actor.  Not an actress.  Awards now are given for “Best Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading (or Supporting) Role.”  Nobody is an actress anymore.  The term “actor” indicates a performer of any sex (or should I say, gender), and actress has no meaning.

So we now have words going out of style.  Actresses and comediennes no longer exist.  These words are now nothing more than collections of letters without a meaning.  This is different from words of a long time ago that are still around and have meaning, but are little used.  For example, words such as “thou,” “thee,” and “thy.”  But referring to a woman as an “actress” is considered an insult.  It’s as though women performers want to be included in the same category as men, i.e., as “actors,” for reasons I can only guess at.  But one of the most important reasons for the existence of language is to provide a collection of letters, that is, words, that identify specific meanings.  Language points out nuances and essences.  Different meanings usually get different words, in spite of the existence of synonyms.  It seems unnecessary to include women in a category with men, but if that’s the way they want it, I guess that’s the way it’ll have to be.  It just means that we now have words that have completely lost their meaning and are flying around like feckless wads in the wilderness (to quote a friend of mine).

There must be other words that have lost their meaning.  Can you think of any?

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You And Yourself

Someone asked me a few days ago how much of myself I put into my writing.  I replied that was a hard question to answer.  And even having thought about it for almost a week, I still can’t answer the question in full.  The only answer I can give directly is that I don’t consciously put any of my self in my writing.  I have never written a character based on me.  Since I write science fiction, I make up fictitious worlds and develop people to fit those worlds.  Many of the inhabitants on those worlds are much different from humans.  They do what I want, and I try to make them act reasonably and logically for those worlds (people on another world aren’t always going to act like us here on Earth).  Still, there must be traits that are common to all forms of life everywhere (I admit that’s a debatable proposition and may not be true at all.  But…).  A science-fiction story may be a good place to put myself in as a character, or to give one or more characters some of my own traits, but so far I haven’t.  I wonder how many authors have.

But that’s probably not what my friend was asking.  I suspect all of us writers put some of themselves in their writing even if they don’t intend to.  Writing is such a solitary and personal activity, it must be hard to not to take a part of yourself and cram it into your writing.  In fact, I wonder if that’s what writing is all about–putting ourselves down on paper or on a com screen for all to see.  I wonder if the act of making up fictitious characters is our way of letting the world know what we really think and feel and wonder about.  Of telling the world what we want to say without coming out and saying it.  At their very basic levels, our characters are us, whether we like it or not.  We cannot write without saying how we feel about life, about other people, about civilizations, about the universe.  A memoir and an op-ed piece are the forms of writing that allow us to do that directly and openly.  Fiction and, to a certain extent, poetry, on the other hand, obscure who we are to the point that readers may not understand what is made up and what is really us.

As I write this, I’m listening to classical music.  Different composers have different styles, and it certainly must be true that composers put themselves into their music in a big way.  Tchaikovsky is much different from Mozart, but Tchaikovsky bears some similarities to other Russian composers of the late 1800’s.  Theirs was a very nationalistic style and their music is a reflection of themselves.  Writers ditto.

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Learn From Writers

If you’ve done much writing, you may have seen articles in writing magazines or online or such about what writers can learn from this, that or the other.  They may take the form: “What Writers Can Learn From Plumbers,” or “What Writers Can Learn From The Backs Of Cereal Boxes.”  You’ve probably seen them.  I’ve read many of them and in most cases I’ve learned something.  Sometimes only a very little something, but a tidbit of information nonetheless.  Now I want to turn the tables and suggest that someone who’s not a writer (at least not that I know of) can learn from us writers.  I have someone very specific in mind: Tiger Woods.

What can Tiger learn from writers?  Simple: learn when to quit.

Now, I don’t mean that Tiger should quit and give up golf altogether, I’m not saying “quit” in that sense.  But Tiger, in contrast to a lot of other professional golfers has been tinkering with his swing since he first took up a golf club, all those many years ago, and he still is.  Sure, when you’re young, adjusting your swing is important.  A pro golfer needs a swing that works well for him/her, and a little tinkering is appropriate.  But after a while you’ve just got to go with what works and play golf.  Enter tournaments and play the game.

There’s a similarity here with writing.  I’ve been working on several science-fiction novels for several years now, and I’ve worked on the first one, especially, quite a lot.  I’ve made changes both large and small over the years, all with a view toward making it better–easier to read, up-to-date, cutting out things that are unnecessary, and so forth.  I tinker with it a lot.  I’ve done this to short stories I’ve written, too.  But there comes a time when tinkering and fooling around become self-defeating, and may even make the piece worse.  Writing, the sage said, is never done, just abandoned.  A writer can always find something to change about a story or novel, even after it’s been published.  You just have to say “no,” and be done with it.  Send it out and let the editor work with it.  Let time be the judge of the piece.  Go on to something else.

Similarly, Tiger can take a lesson here.  Stop tinkering with your swing.  Just tee up the damn ball and smash it down the fairway.  Get into tournaments and play golf.  Like writers who are told “write every day,” I suggest you play golf every day.  You’ve had one hell of a career, get back into the game and play.  You are the J.K. Rowling of golf, bursting on the scene in a display of golfing brilliance.  Write your name again on the Tournament trophy.

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