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From the New York Magazine a beautiful article, May 29, 2020

We Still Go Back and Read Darwin’

Scientist David Baltimore, 82

It’s like a bad dream come true. I started off as a virologist, have read a lot about the influenza epidemic of 1918–19, and I’ve always felt a wonderment that it doesn’t happen more frequently. There are so many viruses out there in the world.

Between my junior and senior years of high school, I did a visit at a mouse-research laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine. It was on a whim, a suggestion of my mother’s. What I discovered over that summer was that the forefronts of research were available to me. I could work on a problem that no one else knew the answer to. It was a simple problem, not earthshaking in any way, but it was mine. There was a moment when I knew something that no one else in the world knew, and I could communicate that with my fellow scientists, and it was a piece of a larger scientific puzzle. I then decided that’s how I wanted to spend my life.

Even though I won a Nobel Prize [at 37], and I pretty well knew I wasn’t going to make another discovery as dramatic as the one that won me the prize, I continued on, and we’ve made some pretty dramatic advances in my laboratory over the 50 years since that discovery. I had gone into science because I wanted to try to understand the behavior of living things. And every little step is an excitement to me. Even if the advance in knowledge that’s made is small, and there are only 27 people who care about it, I still get a thrill from it. I’ve never lost that.

It’s been a period of 60 years since I first was exposed to scientific questions. When I first began work as a scientist with viruses, the virus itself was the unit of interest and we couldn’t get any smaller than that. Over time, we had the ability to pull out the genetic information, at higher and higher resolution, and finally at the highest possible resolution. We can now do that at will. All of that gives us a much richer understanding of the complexity of life, and the ability to alter life, in very subtle but ultimately meaningful ways. All of that is new. But at the same time, it’s the same questions. We still go back and read Darwin.

The time between the appearance of new viruses is long, relative to the political calendar. So we don’t have the political will to maintain our worry about new viruses over decades. And yet that is what we have to do. Once a virus is loose, the time for it to spread is very short, much too short for us to ramp up new capabilities. We have to prepare ourselves for it. We’ve done very poorly in that regard.

—As told to Amelia Schonbek

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