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Posts Tagged ‘Schrödinger’s cat

“The threat of a pandemic is different from that of a nerve agent, in that a disease can spread uncontrollably, long after the first carrier has succumbed”*…

We were, of course, warned. As we do our best to digest the news of emergent new strains of the COVID-19 virus, a look back at Annie Sparrow‘s 2016 New York Review of Books essay on pandemics…

Pandemics—the uncontrolled spread of highly contagious diseases across countries and continents—are a modern phenomenon. The word itself, a neologism from Greek words for “all” and “people,” has been used only since the mid-nineteenth century. Epidemics—localized outbreaks of diseases—have always been part of human history, but pandemics require a minimum density of population and an effective means of transport. Since “Spanish” flu burst from the trenches of World War I in 1918, infecting 20 percent of the world’s population and killing upward of 50 million people, fears of a similar pandemic have preoccupied public health practitioners, politicians, and philanthropists. World War II, in which the German army deliberately caused malaria epidemics and the Japanese experimented with anthrax and plague as biological weapons, created new fears…

According to the doctor, writer, and philanthropist Larry Brilliant, “outbreaks are inevitable, pandemics are optional.”

Much of human history can be seen as a struggle for survival between humans and microbes. Pandemics are microbe offensives; public health measures are human defenses. Water purification, sanitation, and vaccination are crucial to our living longer, better, even taller lives. But these measures of mass salvation are not sexy. While we know prevention is better and considerably cheaper than cure, there is little financial reward or glory in it. Philanthropists prefer to build hospitals rather than pay community health workers. Pharmaceutical companies prefer the Western market to the distant and poor Global South where people cannot afford to buy treatments. Education is a powerful social vaccine against the ignorance that enables pathogens to flourish, but insufficient to overcome the corruption of public goods by private interests. The current enthusiasm for detecting the next panic-inducing pathogen should not divert resources and research from the perennial threats that we already have. We must resist the tendency of familiarity and past failures to encourage contempt and indifference…

An important (and in its time, sadly, prescient) read: “The Awful Diseases on the Way,” from @annie_sparrow in @nybooks.

See also “6 of the Worst Pandemics in History” (source of the image above) and “A history of pandemics.”

[TotH to MK]

Hannah Fry

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As we prioritize preparation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1935 that physicist Erwin Schrödinger published his famous thought experiment– now known as “Schrödinger’s cat“– a paradox that illustrates the problem of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.

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“You’re mad, bonkers, completely off your head. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”*…

Edward Brooke-Hitching grew up in a rare book shop, with a rare book dealer for a father. As the author of histories of maps The Phantom Atlas, The Golden Atlas and The Sky Atlas, he has always been “really fascinated by books that are down the back alleys of history.” Ten years ago, he embarked on a project to come up with the “ultimate library.” No first editions of Jane Austen here, though: Brooke-Hitching’s The Madman’s Library collects the most eccentric and extraordinary books from around the world.

“I was asking, if you could put together the ultimate library, ignoring the value or the academic significance of the books, what would be on that shelf if you had a time machine and unlimited budget?” he says.

Following up anecdotes, talking to booksellers and librarians and trawling through auction catalogues, he came across stories like that of the 605-page Qur’an written in the blood of Saddam Hussein. “If that was on a shelf, what could possibly sit next to it?” he asks. “I mentioned it to a bookseller and they told me about a diary that they’d had, from the 19th century, written by a shipwrecked captain who only had old newspaper and penguins to hand. So Fate of the Blenden Hall was written entirely in penguin blood.”

There’s the American civil war soldier who inscribed his journal of the conflict on to the violin he carried. There’s the memoir of a Massachussetts highwayman, James Allen, which he “requested be bound in his own skin after his death, and presented to his one victim who had fought back as a token of his admiration.” Or the diary of the Norwegian resistance fighter Petter Moen, pricked with a pin into squares of toilet paper and left in a ventilation shaft; although Moen was killed in 1944, one of his fellow prisoners returned to Oslo after it was liberated from the Nazis and found the diary. Or the entirely fabricated book An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa: its author George Psalmanazar, a blond-haired, blue-eyed, pale-skinned man with a thick French accent, arrived in London in about 1702 and declared himself to be the first Formosan, or Taiwanese, person to set foot on the European continent. (“Obviously no one had been there and nobody knew what Taiwanese people looked like, and he became the toast of high society,” says Brooke-Hitching.)

The joy for the author in his discoveries – and make no mistake, The Madman’s Library is an utterly joyous journey into the deepest eccentricities of the human mind – was that they “make you realise that, above everything, people have always been funny, been weird, been unquenchably curious in every possible arena”…

The Madman’s Library, the ultimate collection of bizarre books down the ages: “From cut-out confessions to cheese pages: browse the world’s strangest books.”

[TotH to buddy MK]

* Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

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As we get weird, we might recall that it was on this date in 1935 that physicist Erwin Schrödinger published his famous thought experiment– now known as “Schrödinger’s cat“– a paradox that illustrates the problem of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.

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