When I was seven I was approached on a school playground by a classmate who'd not spoken to me before.
He announced without preamble, "It's all going to die."
When I asked what he meant he swept his hand to take in the playground, the trees and sky, and replied, "Everything. It's all going to be killed, everything that's alive. There's a weapon; it's called an A-Bomb. It's going to kill the world."
America in the 1950s.
I snapped, "Who told you the world was going to die?"
The boy replied, "My father."
"How does he know this?"
"He's an engineer. He knows these things."
I studied the boy's solemn face, the grave look in his eyes.
The passage of time has not dimmed my memory of the anger that came over me. That a grownup would place the weight of the world on a child struck me as horribly cruel.
I was new to the school. "What is your name?"
He replied, "Bill."
I drew myself up to my full height and with all the certainty I could muster I said, "Bill, I am telling you that the world will not die."
He turned over my words in silence.
Finally he asked, "How can you be sure?"
Thinking fast I replied, "Because my father is a scientist and scientists know more than engineers and my father says the world is not going to die."
I was winging it; I figured that if the world was going to die I would have overheard the news. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of creeping back down the stairs after I'd been put to bed, then hiding behind an armchair to listen to the debates among the stream of scientists and mathematicians who visited with my father.
Bill did not seem persuaded by my assurances but from his frown of concentration as he walked away, he was at least thinking about what I'd said.
That was not enough for me.
When my father arrived home that night I flung at him, "Is it true?" Then I blurted the story.
The atom bomb caused great destruction but it was unlikely that it would kill all living things, my father told me.
"Then you must explain this to Bill's father," I pleaded. "And he must explain to Bill."
I gave my parents no peace until they agreed to speak with the school principal about the situation. There followed a meeting between my father and Bill's, who'd had no idea that his son was expecting the world to die at any minute.
A few days later Bill hailed me on the playground. The sorrow had left his face. He related that his father had told him that what my father said about the bomb was true.
"I'm going to be a scientist or engineer when I grow up. I want to stop all the bombs," he added with confidence.
I cannot recall that we ever spoke again and I did not return to the school the next year. Yet the childhood encounter returns to mind sometimes when I contemplate situations that threaten to doom the human race.
I thought of Bill on Sunday when I checked Google News. At first I thought I'd misunderstood the headline: Team finds secret that could stem flu viruses. So I took a moment to gird myself against unwarranted exuberance before reading the article.
I had not misunderstood. The research results give hope that scientists have beaten the influenza virus at its own game. The game includes H5N1 and any of its possible recombinations.
We're not out of the woods yet. The most feared recombination could be drawing nearer with the recent outbreak of Ebola-Reston virus in pigs in the Philippines. Ominously the pig form of the virus has already been transmitted to humans, although the few who are known to have contracted the virus did not die from it.
How the Ebola virus jumped from monkeys to pigs is still unknown. But if the Ebola pig virus should recombine with H5N1 to produce a highly infectious deadly influenza for which humans have no antibodies, the consequences are almost unbearable to think about.
If the research pans out it could be years before a super-vaccine is ready -- a vaccine you take once in your life, and which is good against influenza in any form. Yet we now have a fighting chance to ward off a global killer pandemic that would be devastating to modern societies. I hope Bill has lived to hear the news.
Humanity will not go the way of the dinosaurs. We will not fail. Who dares say this? The daughter of a scientist.
Crossposted at RBO with accompanying artwork.
Emailed comment from reader:
"Yes, laughing is the correct tone
also plenty of bullets"
That's the spirit. We'll be ready for them when they show.
Crossposted at Uppity Woman with a great introduction that invokes the era in America when schoolchildren routinely dived under their desk when the air raid siren went off. For anyone looking for reminiscences about life in Cold War USA, Uppity's comments (and those of a number of her reader's in the comment section) are the bomb, if you'll pardon the expression.