COVID-19 , revolutionary science and the next big risk to humanity.
In his 2012 popular science book Spillover, David Quamman predicted that a coronavirus, possibly originating in bats, would make the leap to humans and cause a pandemic. Eight years later, he has been proven right. How does he feel about that? “I would rather have been wrong,” he said. Because of travel restrictions due to the ongoing pandemic, Quammen’s conversation with Italian science professor and evolutionist Telmo Pievani was streamed into the cloistered courtyard of Mantua’s Museo Diocesano.
The way to bring science to a popular audience is through human stories, said Quamman. He used the example of microbiologist Carl Woese and evolutionary theorist Lynn Margolis, both of whom developed theories so revolutionary they were initially dismissed as being ridiculous. The two scientists started out as rivals, but their work ended up converging to form the theory of horizontal gene transfer, now known to be an enabler for rapid bacterial evolution.
We should view scientific discovery as a process, agreed the two speakers. New theories are proposed constantly, and many will prove to be wrong. So, it’s good to be sceptical. But some, however outlandish they seem at first, will stand up under further investigation. This is exactly what happened with the theory of horizontal gene transfer.
What else should we be worried about? Antibiotic resistance, says Quammen. Thanks to horizontal gene transfer, genetic material enabling antibiotic resistance can pass from one species of bacteria to another, travelling around the world in a short time. Bacteria are currently evolving faster than we can develop antibiotics.
Quammen is now working on a book about Covid 19, but in order to complete his field research he needs to travel again. He is keen to visit Italy, to study why certain parts of the country were hit harder than others. “I wish we could all be in Mantua right now,” he said.
Here is a link to a complete recording of the event (with Italian subtitles):