Hunting for Weapons Against Covid 19

Steve Russell
May 16 · 10 min read
Image from Pixabay

We are the blind men and all of human knowledge is the elephant. The Covid 19 virus might be a tiny parasite the elephant hopes to find and kill.

Viruses are not “living” as we understand life, but a virus can still be “killed” in the sense of being rendered unable to do harm to human beings. The purpose of viruses appears to be making copies of themselves. You have heard that viruses have DNA profiles, you say? Well, you can claim they “have DNA” and that would be a true statement, but it’s truer to say they are DNA lurking inside a protective sheath of protein. Stripping away that protection disables or kills.

The important thing for human beings defending against viruses is that some of the awful viral diseases are carried by viruses easily disabled. Donald Trump to the contrary, that does not mean you need to drink bleach. The Covid 19 virus that has killed half a million people in this country alone can be disabled by hand soap.

Defenders of humanity oppose Covid 19 on two major fronts. The less technical one is purely defensive and it involves developing protocols for avoiding a viral infection while waiting for science to produce an effective offensive weapon. The defensive weapons might be as simple as timing a hand wash or redefining the amount of personal space, “social distance,” we give and expect from others. but these weapons anyone can deploy must still be based on the best science available.


The first answer is the obvious point that we do not want to see people dying who could protect themselves. Less obviously, since we have entered the epoch of post-truth politics, opinion stands equal to arithmetic and a Facebook meme has more force than an equation. Scientists must still do their work because post-truth politics has not yet prevailed and those who cling to the old ways hope that ideas shouted down can be resurrected by evidence.

Yes, I know this is a tautology. Evidence based on truth will show truth and change the minds of those no longer tethered to truth. I also know that saving lives is a much stronger reason. How about stating it this way: if educated people do not keep injecting facts into public discourse, we hasten the day when “fact” is no longer a meaningful category.

Having crashed and burned trying to state a second reason for applying science to defensive issues in the Covid 19 war, I’m not going to try for a general statement but just show how chasing down a defensive issue led to changes in public policy and will almost certainly bleed over into science on the offense against the virus.

The piece of truth being chased was tiny. It amounted to science deployed in the task of correcting a scientific error. My dog in the fight is less consequential than whether truth is worth pursuing, but my point about what we are doing to university education matters for reasons we geezers have taken on faith. It would be good to speak to those who do not share that faith in education.

I have always taken it on faith that the citizenry, after some false starts, created institutions called universities, which are made up of colleges, which are made up of teachers and students who have chosen to explore with their hands on some part of this elephant we call human knowledge. Most of them, teachers and students, are prepared to argue that the part of the elephant they have chosen to investigate best represents the entire animal.

Part of the reason is that they are answering a different question. When somebody asks about relative importance, they hear a request to locate their bliss, their happy place. Another part is the unfortunate scramble for resources that is making a budget for a university. One thing that has not changed since Socrates is that teachers must beg for support.

It becomes important how universities are evaluated, in addition to whether the football team has a winning record. Some professors spoke against the U.S. News & World Report rankings, but the rankings did not bother me at first because the magazine was clear about what factors went into the scores. Those of us who had problems with the result could roughly re-calculate the scores with whatever weight we thought appropriate. When school administrators started trying to manipulate the rankings by changing the way they did things, I decided I had been wrong.

I was not yet part of a voting faculty at the time, and by the time I was, U.S. News was the grandaddy of several numerical rankings. One particular method seems to me outrageous. That would be ranking a college by how long it takes to get a job upon graduation and how much the graduate is paid. We hear phrases like “bang for your tuition buck.”

It occurs to me I cannot assume you, the reader, read my memoir, Lighting the Fire: A Cherokee Journey From Dropout to Professor. The story is in the title. I was born and raised in what was formerly Indian Territory. By treaty, that is — in a more common sense, North America was all Indian Territory. In what is now Eastern Oklahoma, the Five Tribes all had treaties providing that the reservations they received in an involuntary trade for their homelands would never be made part of a state without tribal consent. Those promises evaporated in 1907 because the United States found it convenient to ignore them.

I’ll say this once and shut up because I know some folks find it offensive. The late, great Justice Hugo Black, wrote a remark we Indian lawyers call “the all-purpose federal Indian law dissent.”

Great nations, like great men, should keep their word.

Naturally, Justice Black was writing in dissent. Yes, I know he was once a KKK member — great men, like great nations, have the capacity to change.

That sermon explains my meaning when I say my birthplace was in the Muscogee-Creek Nation and this entire digression speaks to why I’m likely to be invested in what tuition bucks buy.

I was raised by my grandparents, who had two Social Security checks and a pension my grandfather got for a trip to Cuba in the Spanish-American War. We were poor enough to have what is now called “food insecurity.”

While my grandparents told me to go to college, there was no money and I quit school at the end of the ninth grade, the same as most Indian kids.

In 1969, the GI Bill was burning a hole in my pocket and I was working at a data processing service bureau in a bank tower, the best job I ever had in my life. I quit to talk my way into the University of Texas, and that should help explain the hostility I am about to express toward the modern method of evaluating universities.

That “bang for the tuition buck” nonsense infects state legislatures and often causes maldistribution of appropriations among public colleges.

The voting public should not maintain colleges and universities merely for the purpose of getting the kids employed. That would be to judge the flagship liberal arts institution in the state by how well it fulfills the mission of community colleges. Stripped down the bare bones, there needs to be some place where you put smart people and let them go where their bliss leads them. They will attract students to take along.

When, in my second career, I was ready to teach, I looked back on the very best professors I had, the ones I’ll never forget. They were following their bliss and passing on what they learned in the process. In a way, you “profess” by explaining to your students how you came to value your corner of human knowledge. My first career was as a judge, and I hope people noticed that I approached it as much more than an exertion of power to a political end.

There is a powerful socialization process that shapes new judges to a life of fidelity to the law — or not, but if not, they become very unhappy human beings and they become the few who do serious harm with their power. It is not an accident that when Donald John Trump needed judges to ratify the Big Lie that Joe Biden stole the last election, he had no luck. Going to judges he appointed did not help, and I am sure he thought they were faithless and their rulings showed they were not trustworthy. They failed to show him gratitude.

One should be grateful for political favors, but to use the judicial power to show it is an insult to the rule of law you have sworn to protect. I did not support the unseemly scramble to get another “Trump judge” on the Supreme Court before the second Trump impeachment, but I saw nothing in her record to suggest that Amy Coney Barrett lacked the sense of serving the law that is fundamental to the job.

Because Mr. Trump is ignorant of procedure, he did not understand that a Supreme Court justice sits passively and waits for a case or controversy to arrive in a manner suitable for a ruling. Justice Barrett, by herself or in combination with Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, could not order the officials in Georgia to “find” the number of votes candidate Trump needed.

Because Mr. Trump is ignorant of substance, he did not understand that “rule of law” means that like cases are decided in a like manner without regard to the identity of the parties. Even if one of the parties is named Trump.

My earliest judicial service was on a court that heard traffic cases. One day I got a call from the Austin City Councilman who had swung some spectacular horse trading to get the infamous “hippie judge” with the civil rights arrest record on the court. What he had done for me was not without risk to him and we both knew it.

He told me that he had gotten his fourth speeding ticket. Four moving violations meant a license suspension. He asked me what he should do.

There was a pause long enough for my entire judicial career to flash before my eyes. Come to think of it, that did not take long until I replied.

Slow down.

When I became a professor of criminal justice, I taught procedure and I taught law. I explained how the English Common Law brought us to where we are now and I identified areas recently changed and likely to continue changing. That was nuts and bolts stuff. What I professed was reverence for the rule of law, and that greatly influenced my choice of research issues.

Professors at researchuniversities are nerds who have pursued questions so narrow it sometimes takes a feat of imagination to find how they fit together. The life cycle of a mosquito. The rate of deterioration of a human corpse buried in various kinds of soil. How to create a timeline from ice core samples. How the common law found husbands had a “right” to physically discipline their wives.

There is no need for answers to these questions….until there is.

What is the difference between an aerosol and a droplet? This question engaged an unlikely posse of professorial nerds when it became a matter of life or death in the war between H. sapiens and the virus we have named Covid 19. The medical literature considered it well-settled that a droplet was greater than five microns across and, if carried in a particle less than five microns, the virus could ride air currents for distances much greater than the six feet people were being told was a safe social distance.

Image from Pixabay

Covid 19 did not appear to some aerosol nerds to be acting as it should if five microns were in fact the breaking point. It became necessary to find out how that figure landed in the medical literature.

For my purpose — showing the value of turning nerds loose to do their thing — -the process of tracking down the five micron standard is not useful. I need only to describe the posse and ask my readers to remember how many taxpayers in how many jurisdictions funded this investigation. I commend to your attention a fascinating article that gives a blow-by-blow. It appears in Wired magazine and the author is Megan Molteni.

Ms. Molteni’s brilliant reporting on such an esoteric topic is, in itself, a demonstration of the utility of turning nerds loose to be nerds. She was graduated from Carleton College with a dual major in biology and Spanish, and she proceeded to acquire a master’s in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley.

It appears that the five micron rule was questioned by Lindsey Marr, an “aerosol scientist” at Virginia Tech University. Her published skeptical remarks led to her nomination to be one of the referees for an article submitted by Yuguo Li, from the University of Hong Kong, setting out mathematical simulations of droplets of various sizes.

The posse gained another volunteer in the person of an atmospheric chemist working at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Jose-Luis Jimenez.

As the team tried to work backward to the beginning of the five micron question, it became apparent that it would be easier with a professional historian. They brought on Tom Ewing, a historian on the Virginia Tech faculty who had written on the spread of tuberculosis and influenza. Ewing was able to bring on a graduate student, Katie Randall, with expertise in tracking citations and whose dissertation had been temporarily dry-docked by Covid 19.

Randall discovered an early book that appeared useful by William Firth Wells, an engineer at Harvard. Wells was deceased and his book, Airborne Contagion and Air Hygiene, was long out of print. At this point, Covid 19 counterpunched. The virus had shut down interlibrary loan, the usual source for out-of-print books. A rare book dealer came up with a copy for a mere $500, which Randall did not have, but a librarian in Michigan saved the day with a digital copy.

The posse was able to surround the problem and when they could prove that the five micron standard was wrong, Marr and Jimenez wrote a public letter that attracted more support and these volunteers in the public interest got the World Health Organization to rewrite its guidelines for preventing the spread of Covid 19.

As with the blow-by-blow story, I have not named all the players. For that, I recommend Megan Molteni’s piece in Wired. I have plucked enough names and institutions out of Molteni’s story to make the point that research universities represent a brain trust that benefits the whole world and has nothing to do with how quickly or if graduates get employed or how much money they make. The currency of this brain trust is not cash; it is curiosity, but research universities are expensive to run. We quit supporting them at our peril.

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Steve Russell

Written by

Enrolled Cherokee, 9th grade dropout, retired judge, associate professor emeritus, and (so far) cancer survivor. Memoir: Lighting the Fire (Miniver Press 2020)

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn | Tune in at | Connecting 500k+ monthly readers with 1,200+ authors

Steve Russell

Written by

Enrolled Cherokee, 9th grade dropout, retired judge, associate professor emeritus, and (so far) cancer survivor. Memoir: Lighting the Fire (Miniver Press 2020)

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn | Tune in at | Connecting 500k+ monthly readers with 1,200+ authors

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