Steve Barnes' World of Happiness

Reconstructing the coronavirus.

(Science Week, Day 3!)

Today, a beautiful multimedia column by Carl Zimmer, originally published in The New York Times last fall. I had skimmed this, realized I hadn’t read it fully, and supposed doing so this morning might be a chore. Since then I’ve become not just fascinated, but suspicious something has finally stoked a clearer interest in molecular biology in me.

Since this was published, of course, a number of safe and effective vaccines have become available, and the world is finally on course to managing the pandemic. That alone is a testament to science, obviously, setting apart that the Moderna vaccine – thanks to techniques previously developed – was apparently developed in just two days. But the intimate detail in which this virus is knowable is what this piece illustrates.

This area of science has always seemed intriguingly complex enough to summon my typically wondering appreciation as astronomy and physics long have, yet somehow I’d never sought to master even its basics. If that’s you too, then this article is for you. The wording is layperson-like yet precise, conveying a handful of clear and practical concepts about what the famous SARS-CoV-2 is and how it works – and the wondrous animated diagrams allow you to cross-check your impressions. The content is a collection of findings from a international group of scientists working independently but sharing the goal of mapping, visualizing, and running simulations on the virus, coherently related by Zimmer. This is a piece to read leisurely and indulgently, with distractions off.

What differentiates molecular biology from physics and astronomy is that, even before figures like Galileo or Netwon, at least the latter would have been apparent since the dawn of humanity. But while cells, proteins, amino acids and so on have existed long before us, that world has been fully invisible – a few centuries ago, even experts must have felt as helpless to harmful viruses as natural disasters. Thanks to science and only to science, all of this lies before all of us.