More Science Talk
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Dennis Meredith: I have a bioterrorist who’s a guy who’s working on what are called chromophores and they’re the colored substances that animals have and animals have tons of different chromophores and he figures out how to put them into a virus and then he does a lot of very elegant work to figure out how it would be made to infect humans.
Steve Mirsky: That’s science writer Dennis Meredith. Dennis has been a science communicator at some of the nation’s leading research institutions, including MIT, Caltech, Cornell, Duke and the University of Wisconsin. He got his Undergraduate Degree in Chemistry from the University of Texas and a Masters in a Biochemistry and Science Writing from Wisconsin - go Badgers - and he’s the author of a new novel called The Rainbow Virus. I caught up with Dennis at the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston. We spoke in a mostly empty corridor at the Heinz Convention Center. Dennis, tell us about the book and it’s a novel. It’s not a non-fiction but there’s a lot of real science in it.
Dennis Meredith: It’s called The Rainbow Virus and it’s what I call scientific fiction in that I take what’s real science and stretch it a bit to tell a good adventure story but, at the same time, it’s based on some real psychological studies and studies that warn about the dangers of bioterrorism but, again, I was looking to write an adventure novel to grab people to sort of get them to think about issues of skin color, of issues of what bioterrorism could do, those kinds of things.
Steve Mirsky: So what actually - give us the whole book but give us a general outline of the plot.
Dennis Meredith: Well, these people start turning different colors all of a sudden and I try to capture some of the shock and dismay that happens when that occurs and then, gradually, this bioterrorist begins to develop new viruses that cause people to change into a multitude of colors.
Steve Mirsky: Not just the - it’s not that somebody who’s white turns black or somebody who’s black turns white, it’s somebody who’s beige turns green.
Dennis Meredith: Oh yeah I tried to use as many colors as I could. There’s tangerine, there’s grape, there’s pumpkin, there’s fuchsia and the idea was we define ourselves, oddly enough, as black or white, although there are no white people and there are no black people so we have this kind of dichotomies view, this binary view and what would happen if people turned just a rainbow of colors. What would that do their perceptions of themselves, what would it do to the whole idea in society about race and it was sort of a thought experiment that started about ten years ago that blossomed into this novel.
Steve Mirsky: Talk a little bit about the actual science. I mean obviously there’s no virus right now that a bioterrorist could use to make people turn all kinds of Lifesaver-roll colors but, within the constructs that you develop in the book, how do you explain in a way that’s not completely outlandish how this could happen.
Dennis Meredith: Well, I have the bioterrorist -- without giving too much away, I have the bioterrorist - who’s a guy who’s working on what are called chromophores and they’re the colored substances that animals have and animals have tons of different chromophores and he figures out how to put them into a virus and then he does a lot of very elegant work to figure out how it could be made to infect humans so it’s sort of the basic building-blocks of the science are there but I arranged them in a really screwy way to make a point.
Steve Mirsky: And we should point out, I mean people may have heard about green fluorescent protein, which is used in a lot of scientific work but it’s also been used just proof-of-principle, didn’t they turn rabbits green or kittens green?
Dennis Meredith: They’ve turned rabbits and kittens and mice these fluorescent colors and so that happened actually after I came up with the idea for the book and I was kind of surprised to see that, well, you could do it and so the issue is what would happen if this started happening to people and there were sort of two themes here. One was, of course, this idea of skin color and what our perception of skin color is to our own identity and the other thing that I found as I was researching the book that there are a lot of government reports that say bioterrorism is indeed an enormous threat that has not been paid attention to enough.
Steve Mirsky: We had the anthrax incident shortly after 9/11. I remember years ago editing a piece for the magazine about the threat to crops from bioterror. That wouldn’t actually affect people directly but if you could wipe out the wheat supply you could do severe economic damage to the country so bioterror is a real threat that people do pay a lot of attention to in the circles of policymaking.
Dennis Meredith: Yes, in policymaking circles but one in the book, although it’s subsumed by this adventure story, is that the government really needs to fund adequately bioterrorism and biodefense projects that these things don’t happen that CDC and the army and other areas, other agencies, have enough money to understand these threats but the anthrax release in 2001 is a classic case. That was allegedly done by a guy who worked at USAMRIID. That’s the government research biodefense laboratory who stole anthrax from the facility and weaponized it, and I was surprised in my research in talking to people that at least when I talk to them the handling of some of these viruses is not under the kind of security that you would expect. I know I can’t - I won’t reveal any names but one guy who works in new viruses and lethal organisms told me they were shipped FedEx.
Steve Mirsky: We don’t have a separate shipping mechanism for such substances, I guess.
Dennis Meredith: Not then. Not then. They certainly weren’t carried in an armored car to their destination. They were sent FedEx and I guess the bad news is that they’re shipped FedEx. The good news is that they arrived overnight.
Steve Mirsky: So what happens in the book, again without giving us the entire book but it’s an interesting bioterrorism mechanism. People aren’t dying, they’re just waking up and they’re blue.
Dennis Meredith: They’re blue, red, green, at first it’s the primary colors but then I branch out. My bioterrorist learns to modulate the genes in his virus so that they are randomly have random levels of the primary colors so people start turning all the colors of the rainbow and I have it happen in an entire city and then what happens to society? Do boyfriend and girlfriend break up because their colors are incompatible? Does a husband beat up the mailman because his color is closer to that of his son than him? [Laughter] So there are a lot of fun things that happen but I wanted to explore what would happen to the entire society if people were multicolored?
Steve Mirsky: Mmm-hmm and what was your deep motivation for doing it? It’s sort of in addition to being, as you call it, scientific fiction, it’s sort of allegory.
Dennis Meredith: It is. It’s allegory. I grew up in a very racist society, I mean, where the Clan was active and there were colored and white toilets and colored and white drinking fountains and the races were strictly separate.
Steve Mirsky: This was Texas in the --?
Dennis Meredith: This was Texas in the ‘60s, ‘50s, late ‘50s and so fortunately I had a gentleman -- a grandfatherly-like gentleman - named Uncle Fox, who is a black man - actually dark, dark brown [laughter] who lived in the back of a beer joint that my dad would frequent and I’d go back and I’d talk to Uncle Fox and he was just a great guy and I loved him dearly.
Steve Mirsky: And you were a really little kid.
Dennis Meredith: I was nine years old and so as I grew up and I became aware of this viscous, vile racism in the area I was totally puzzled because I’m thinking when they’re talking about using the N-word and other racial epithets, they’re talking about Uncle Fox and sort of stuck with me, in my mind and as I grew and then when I became a writer I had this really screwy notion about what would happen if somebody turned everybody a different color and when writers have screwy notions they turn it into novels. [Laughter] When normal people have screwy notions they sort of laugh and go about their way so that’s what happened.
Steve Mirsky: Why don’t you read a passage from the book? This is early on in the book.
Dennis Meredith: Well, to set the stage, I wanted to sort of capture how people - how somebody would - feel if they were just a normal everyday guy working a normal everyday job and they woke up in the morning a color and to set the stage, this is an Emergency Room, early, early in the morning, everybody’s half-asleep, the nurses have worked their tails off all night and they’re relaxed and just waiting to go off their shift and here’s what happens. “The metallic clang of a dropped instrument trace shattered the silence, startling her, the nurse, to lose the alertness. She managed to focus on a middle-aged man who had rushed up to her desk. His pear-shaped, broad body was barely covered by a thin, worn plaid bathrobe. His sparse disheveled hair stuck crazily up from his bulbous head. His jowly unshaven face sagged with sleep and age and that face was blue, a sold, bright blue that brought an involuntary grunt and utter surprise from the nurse.
His chest, belly and legs showed the same unrelenting blue as his face and hands. He stared at her wide-eyed, pleadingly. His mouth opened twice as if to say something. He released the robe, holding his palms up but then dropped them to his side. Then his eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed with an alarming thud, his skinny blue legs splayed out on the floor.
The nurse recovered enough to bark, “Patient in acute distress” to the Emergency Room staff. She scurried around the desk to find the man’s eyes opening as she knelt down. ‘Sir, are you having trouble breathing, are you having chest pains?’ ‘No, uhh, I - I’m’ - but before he could finish a doctor and another nurse rushed up. They took one surprised look at the man and one puzzled glance at each other.
Then the doctor crouched at his side. With brisk efficiency, the doctor, the sturdy nurse and the Emergency Room hoisted the man onto a gurney. ‘Sir, can you breathe,” asked the doctor as he placed his stethoscope on the hairy blue chest. ‘Uhh, uhh, yes, I think I’m okay but I’m just’ - ‘Are you having chest pains?’ ‘No, I just woke up and I was blue.’
His brown eyes showed a rising fear, a sheen of sweat formed on his blue upper lip. ‘You just woke up? You were asleep or did faint?’ ‘I was asleep, I fainted now. I’m scared.’
‘Well, sit. Well, sir, you just relax, we’ll find out what’s wrong.’ ‘What’s wrong is I’m blue,’ he mumbled. ‘Am I okay?’
Steve Mirsky: So you had an oddly eerie experience this morning that’s reminiscent of this.
Dennis Meredith: Yes, I think it’s payback. I woke up and I was taking a shower. I got out of the shower and I turned color. I turned blotchy red all over my body and I got just a sense, a small sense, of what this poor guy wen through because when you look in the mirror you expect to see yourself in your normal color.
Steve Mirsky: Bright red is something that’s a little more common and probably you’re having some kind of an allergic reaction to something.
Dennis Meredith: Yes, I ate something or I was exposed to something that I had dermatitis as a result of so the thing is even though this is a perfectly normal pathology, I felt really frightened, disconcerted and so you can imagine what would happen if people woke up and they were blue or red or orange or fuchsia or tangerine.
Steve Mirsky: Yeah so right now you’re taking some antihistamines and [crosstalk] --
Dennis Meredith: Yes.
Steve Mirsky: and you’re getting this under control and you’re waiting to hear back from your daughter who’s a doctor.
Dennis Meredith: That’s right. I’m stoned on Benadryl at this point and the itching has sort of gone away but there’s still -- as with the victims in the novel there’s still - in the back of my head, “I’m different, my skin is different.”
Steve Mirsky: Well, if you wake up tomorrow and you’re purple, we’ll talk some more.
Dennis Meredith: That I’ll have to find another drug for, absolutely.
Steve Mirsky: Dennis Meredith’s new book is The Rainbow Virus. For any science journalists listening, Dennis has written The Council for the Advancement of Science Writing’s online “Guide To Careers In Science Writing” and if you take advantage of the EurekAlert! Service you can thank Dennis. He was one of the creators and developers.
Steve Mirsky: Well, that’s it for this episode. Get your science news at our website, www.scientificamerican.com where you can check out my latest column for the magazine on the advantages to criminals of getting a skin disease. The column is called “Dermatitis Could Make Fingerprints Unreadable” and follow us on Twitter where you’ll get a tweet whenever a new item hits the website. Our Twitter name is @sciam. For Scientific American Science Talk, I’m Steve Mirsky, thanks for clicking on us.
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