The World Turned Upside Down
Thoughts on a COVID infection, and what it means to live in an age of microbes.
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Two years ago, almost to the day, I flew out to California with my middle son to visit colleges, a voyage that turned out to be our last hurrah of maskless air travel. I have a distinct memory from that trip of meeting up with an old friend who has a long history in epidemiology and public health, during a stopover in Marin. It was a purely social visit, but the first words he spoke to me, in lieu of a greeting, were: are you tracking this virus in Wuhan? I mumbled something about how the WHO had said there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission, and he just looked at me and said: No, this is the big one.
I don’t think I ever felt fully sanguine about our health prospects again after that one remark. My friend, of course, turned out to be right. I returned to Brooklyn the next day, and within six weeks we found ourselves at the epicenter of the whole thing: those endless days of sirens and freezer trucks outside of morgues, watching the Cuomo briefings each morning for signs of a flattening curve. But somehow—by sheer luck in those early days—we kept ourselves free of the virus. Over time, we learned to make our own luck, through all the prophylactic rituals of our time: we wore our masks, conducted zoom meetings, swore off restaurant dinners and gratuitous travel. And then the vaccines arrived, and we protected ourselves further with the wonders of mRNA technology. I spent a lot of that time thinking about SARS-CoV-2, and much of my work during that period orbited around it—its social and intellectual mass the inverse of its physical mass. But as far as I know, I avoided a first-person encounter with the virus all that time.
And then just the other day, exactly two years after I had that conversation with my friend, as I was sending my middle son off to his second semester of college, I decided to give myself a rapid test. I had plans to see friends the next day who were older, and had been in several situations where an exposure might have been possible, so it seemed like the prudent thing to do. And sure enough, I was positive.
I’m triple-vaxxed and generally healthy for my (middle) age, so at the moment, looking down at that second telltale stripe on the rapid test, I felt almost zero anxiety about my personal health. The immediate anxiety I felt was all logistical: How long would I have to delay my flight back to Brooklyn? Did I have enough food in the fridge to wait out the infection? And most importantly, how was I going to get my morning coffee the next day?
But then another thought crept in, more eerie than anxious: somewhere down on the microbial scale, untold numbers of coronaviruses were hijacking my cells to make copies of themselves. It had taken two years, but SARS-CoV-2 had finally turned me into a host.
Mostly I thought about the Omicron variant itself. Just two months ago, it was circulating through the population of the Gauteng province in South Africa, where it was first detected. Since that time it had circled the globe at a blistering pace, replicating itself in host after host. The spread across the US had been astonishing.
40 percent of the population in just a matter of weeks. And now it had traveled all the way across the world—a blind replicator, not even alive by many definitions—and found its way to me.
Pandemics share some qualities with political revolutions; they both create the sense, to quote Hamilton, of a “world turned upside down.” Part of that shift lies in the way it forces us to think about a whole world of medical science and public health that is usually invisible to us. Suddenly we have a whole new cast of heroes who have been quietly extending our lives and keeping us safe all this time. (And, for some subset of the population, a new cast of villains.) But pandemics also invert our normal assumptions in a more literal way. We’re forced to grapple with how much of our world is shaped by organisms that are unthinkably small.
There is something potentially creepy in that realization, but also, to quote Darwin, a kind of grandeur. Carl Zimmer wrote about this wonderfully in the Times last year, in an essay adapted from his book, Life’s Edge, one of my favorites from 2021. Zimmer described the massive changes in behavior that rippled around the world in the spring of 2020:
The change was so swift, so striking that scientists needed a new name for it: the anthropause… But the anthropause did more than reconfigure the animal kingdom. It also altered the planet’s chemistry. As factories grew quiet and traffic dropped, ozone levels fell by 7 percent across the Northern Hemisphere. As air pollution across India dropped by a third, mountain snowpacks in the Indus Basin grew brighter. With less haze in the atmosphere, the sky let more sunlight through. The planet’s temperature temporarily jumped between a fifth and half of a degree.
At the center of these vast shocks is an oily bubble of genes just about 100 nanometers in diameter. Coronaviruses are so small that 10 trillion of them weigh less than a raindrop.
Of course it’s not just viruses that have planet-scale impact. One of the books that made a huge impression on me in my twenties was Stephen Jay Gould’s Full House, where he flips the traditional hierarchy of the different stages of the evolution of life, which had conventionally been described as a progressive trajectory from simple organisms to more complex ones, culminating of course in the emergence of Homo sapiens. Instead, Gould argued, if we actually measure in terms of overall population numbers, or biomass, or the work done to support the overall metabolism of the planet, the microbes were far more important than the primates. “One spoonful of high quality soil,” Gould noted, “contains about 10 trillion bacteria…
If we must characterize a whole by a representative part, we certainly should honor life's constant mode. We live now in the "Age of Bacteria." Our planet has always been in the "Age of Bacteria," ever since the first fossils -- bacteria, of course -- were entombed in rocks more than 3 billion years ago. On any possible, reasonable or fair criterion, bacteria are -- and always have been -- the dominant forms of life on Earth. Our failure to grasp this most evident of biological facts arises in part from the blindness of our arrogance but also, in large measure, as an effect of scale.
This scale inversion—small matters more than big—may have larger implications that extend beyond our pale blue dot, particularly if there turn out to be other forms of life emerging elsewhere in the universe. There’s a wonderful exchange in the TED Interview with physicist David Deutsch, where Deutsch talks about what he calls a “narrow conception” of what science is:
According to that view, you classify things in the universe in a sort of hierarchy of more massive and powerful versus less massive, and so on. And so, we're used to the fact that the big objects, like the supermassive black holes in the center of a galaxy affect a star, can rip a star to pieces, but the star being ripped to pieces hardly affects the supermassive black hole. And it's the same with the Sun and the solar system, you know, the Sun affects the Earth, but the Earth barely affects the Sun, and so on. But the funny thing is, on Earth, on the surface of the Earth, everything's the other way around. Everywhere you look, you see the effects of life on Earth, and life -- every living thing that you see is the result of the action of a single molecule or two molecules, depending on what kind of organism it is. So this submicroscopic entity commands vast resources.
Pandemics turn the dominance of the microscopic into a kind of horror movie—all these invisible, zombie cells hijacking our bodies to reproduce—but they should also remind us that most of the time, the web of connections that links our own lives to that of the invisible kingdom of microbes works astonishingly well: from those 10 trillion bacteria in a spoonful of soil, to the e coli in your gut, to the photosynthetic Cyanobacteria that manufacture the oxygen we breath. There is a kind of humility that comes from seeing the world this way—the humility that comes from recognizing how dependent you are on these organisms, how potentially vulnerable you are to novel viruses when they arise. But there’s also a kind of inverted version of the Romantic sublime: a sense of wonder triggered not by the oversized scale of the Matterhorn, but rather by the miraculous way the world is governed by things too small for us to see.
A few housekeeping items to share. As many of you know, I’ve been writing a series for paying subscribers about creative workflows, building on some of the concepts in my book Where Good Ideas Come From. I haven’t been sending out paywalled versions of those emails to non-paying subscribers because that just seems annoying, but I wanted to make sure everyone was aware that I’ve now published five installments, including the introduction, with more to come:
How do you capture your hunches? Big ideas invariably come into the world as fragments, hints of possibility. How do you make sure you don’t lose track of them?
Capturing and Colliding: How do you retain and remix ideas from other people’s minds? A 300-year-old productivity hack might be the key.
Seven Types of Serendipity: From untidy desks to post-it notes to the brewery next door—so much of the creative process is about being open to happy accidents. But how do you make them more likely to happen?
The Serendipity Engine: In which I ask a simple question: “How do you surprise yourself?”
Also, the good folks at Thrv invited me onto their podcast specifically to discuss the whole concept of the adjacent possible and its connection to innovation theory. It’s a fun conversation—definitely worth a listen.
Stay safe out there, friends. And if someone wants to bring me a good coffee, I’d really appreciate it.
[Image: Scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (round blue objects) emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. Credit: NIAID-RML]