From Stars to SARS: how astronomy can help us understand epidemiology

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Image by WikiImages from Pixabay

When astronomers use some of the most powerful telescopes in the world (and orbiting it) to peer into the heavens and see the stars what they are really doing is taking a trip into the past. The light from many of the stellar bodies that scientists focus on today has been coursing through the cosmos for millions, if not billions of years. So what the astronomers see today is light that left those stars, galaxies, quasars, pulsars, etc. a long, LONG time ago, and often from a galaxy far far away.

In a very similar way, the numbers that epidemiologists use to describe an active epidemic or pandemic are not reflective of the current situation, but rather reflect the past–how far into the past depends on the virus or disease in question.

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Numbers From Italy: COVID-19 vs. Flu

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

A lot has been written lately that compares the new SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes the COVID-19 disease, to the much more common and more familiar seasonal influenza virus that causes the dreaded flu. Personally, I think this is a very bad comparison, and one that should really be avoided at all costs, but it seems everyone from politicians to pundits to people in my friends lists is using the flu as the benchmark to measure by, so who am I to argue with consensus. So, let’s compare the experience Italy has had thus far this year with seasonal flu and COVID-19, and see which one is truly a bigger deal. Continue reading

A Little Behind the Scenes on My Latest Book: Emergence

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In the Spring of 1918 a strain of Influenza that had never circulated in the human population before popped up in a group of soldiers training to fight in WW1 in Kansas. They took the virus to Europe with them. At first the infection was limited to the camp where the soldiers lived, and it killed a few hundred people. Not much of entry for a sickness that just a little less than a year later would sweep around the globe killing somewhere between 50 and 100 million people worldwide. Viruses are like the thermonuclear weapons of the biological world. They are mysterious, can strike without warning, and have the potential to cause destruction on a truly terrifying scale.

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