The tricky thing about history is that it can only be pinned down in retrospect. For this reason, it is often difficult to tell when something significant has actually happened. Few witnessing the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, for example, would have predicted that it would lead to a devastating four-year conflict and the deaths of over 15 million people worldwide. But things have a way of leading from one to another, and it is impossible to predict whether a local instability will collapse in on itself, or instead escalate beyond recognition.
Scientists, I think, are trained to be sceptical about major events in general, and the coverage of these events in the media in particular. Thus far the typical responses of my learned colleagues to the news of possible pandemic influenza have ranged from shrugs of disinterest to humorous quips, but very few feel that it will come to anything much. It is almost as if magnitude of the press response has reinforced their suspicion that nothing could possibly be as bad as advertised.
So, are we witnessing another SARS fizzle-out, or the birth of a devastating plague that will be recorded in textbooks for millennia to come? I can almost see it inscribed: In 2009, the first year of the Second Great Depression, the Swine Flu Epidemic wiped out a third of the earth’s population.
This is not to say that I am panicking. Not at all. My biggest concern at the moment is that there will be a lock-down on travel just for precautionary reasons and I will not be able to come home from my sabbatical. I consider this highly unlikely, but with the lag-time of incubation periods, I also think that it is too soon to dismiss this concern as ‘overreaction’.
So, where was I when I heard about the 2009 Swine Flu Epidemic?
I was alone in a tissue culture suite early on Saturday morning at the Advanced Light Microscopy Facility of the European Molecular Biology Laboratories in Heidelberg. Sun was streaming through the window, and my cells were looking particularly healthy. I was pleasantly tired from the run through the forest from my hotel: my hands were still damp from exertion, so I recall that it was difficult to get my nitrile gloves on. The radio was set to the TC station of local choice, 99.9 FM, the sort of platform that plays the same Top-40 hits over and over with the occasional pause for a barrage of largely unintelligibly German banter. It is certainly not a venue for serious news of any sort.
Which is why, after about the fourth repetition of a spate of exposition, I started to pick out the few words I did recognize: Mexico. Schweinen. Gezondheid. I had already put two and two together by the time the DJ finally pronounced the term that confirmed my suspicions: Influenza. A quick check on the BBC website solidified my knowledge.
On the run back to the hotel, I particularly remember that the morning air had an unusual quality of lucidity; the greenness of the leaves, the smell of ferns and the sound of water spilling over stones reminded me of the transience of life on this planet, and how little we are in control of anything.