It’s a Small World, After All
The Earth is pretty massive, right? It was a mystery how big until a Greek scholar named Eratosthenes devised an accurate method for estimating the circumference of our planet, around 240 BC. That’s clever for someone who lived more than 2200 years ago. Back then, the Earth must have seemed enormous, but as we have learned through the centuries, we occupy an insignificant amount of space compared to the solar system, the Milky Way galaxy, and the universe. The scale is astounding, and describing the humongous size of objects in outer space along with the vast distances between them is extraordinarily difficult.
It’s all very interesting, but the truth is…it’s irrelevant. Our permanent home is right here on Earth, an average sized planet revolving around an average sized star, and we still have lots to learn about this humble abode. Humans have spent a lot of time and money looking for something bigger than we are. We should actually be more concerned with much smaller things, too small for the naked eye to see. The invention of the microscope in 1590 was fantastic, but didn’t yield much right away, due to poor image quality and relatively low magnification (from 3X to 9X). However, by 1667, the microscope had improved enough that bacteria were discovered. It opened up another universe right under our noses…inner space, if you will. It was still another 200 years or so before the connection was made between bacteria and illness, but the stage had been set for numerous revolutionary discoveries.
How strange it is in today’s world to imagine that people had no idea about things smaller than the eye can see, no understanding that evil spirits or “bad air” were not responsible for the illness and death around them. This lack of understanding was responsible for untold suffering throughout history. Even when these associations were made, it was a long time before there was much we could do about it. Penicillin was discovered in 1928 but it wasn’t until 1941 that its potential for treating infections was proven. Before antibiotics, bacterial infections were often a death sentence, from strep throat to pneumonia to meningitis. The explosion of knowledge about illnesses of all kinds, and potential treatments, was made possible thanks to the microscope. Medical advances are now made every day, which makes humans safer than ever from these invisible threats.
But are we really safe?
Like other organisms, microscopic life forms evolve to fit the changing environments in which they exist. Any threats that they faced from human beings prior to the 20th century were purely accidental. Once we discovered ways to defeat disease-causing bacteria and eventually, viruses, those organisms reacted quite naturally by adapting to become resistant to penicillin or early vaccines. Humanity provides a large, diverse breeding ground for these tiny life forms, in which they can multiply, evolve, and spread. We react by modifying our treatments accordingly, but the fact of the matter is that we’re outnumbered by the invisible invaders. Irresponsible overuse of antibiotics has exacerbated the problem by making some bacteria tougher to eradicate. What happens when we run out of stronger and stronger antibiotics?
In general, we humans are safer than ever before, because we know the dangers that exist, and we have learned to adopt behaviors that help. Soap and water go a long way toward protection from common germs. Even so, most of us are a broken water main away from being exposed to organisms that are extremely harmful. The global pandemic that kicked off the year 2020 has proven that we are not really as safe as we would like to think. It makes you wonder…
Where are our priorities?
In the United States, federal funding for medical research makes up less than 1% of the total federal budget. Private funding of research accounts for three times that much. You can argue about the politics of it until blue in the face, but the fact is that the defense budget is at least 13 times higher than that of medical research. If we lose the battle against our microscopic invaders, we won’t need to defend ourselves from other enemies, foreign or domestic. As far as looking for the bogeyman from outer space, if aliens are watching and wanted to destroy the human race, it would have occurred long ago. We already know where the real enemies of humankind are…we just need special instruments to see them. It may sound pessimistic, and frankly depressing, but unless we get serious about our priorities, it is likely only a matter of time before there is a “superbug” that resists all attempts at inoculation. All the tanks, warships, spaceships, and nuclear weapons in the world won’t help us fight that war.
Humankind has spent millennia looking upward and outward in search of answers to the questions about our place in the universe. In contrast, a mere fraction of that time has been spent looking inward, and as such we have only scratched the surface of understanding the microbiome that surrounds us and dwells within our bodies. Exploration of outer space has expanded our horizons and spurred technological advancements, certainly. Providing for defense is essential to the common good, obviously. However, perhaps the greatest potential for improving the quality of life for all humans lies within researching the invisible universe of the microscopic.