Diseases from Space
I was once visited by a science writer who told me in a state of some excitement of a notion to which he attached great importance: suppose a brain to be transplanted from one person to another; would not the new identity of the recipient of the graft raise perplexing, disturbing, and very likely insoluble legal and personal problems?
I did my best to explain why the brain could not be transplanted, calling in evidence both its extreme susceptibility to being deprived of oxygen, and the mass of evidence accumulated during the war pointing to the slowness and functional inadequacy of the healing of even quite simple and clean lesions in peripheral nerves—inadequacies that would be multiplied a thousandfold in the transplantation of the brain.
The writer listened attentively to my arguments and then rejected them all. He was in love with his idea and no amount of reasoning could disenchant him. I do not know whether his intended article or book was ever written, but if it was it would have been a serious rival to the book currently under review as the silliest and most unconvincing quasi-scientific speculation yet put before the public.
One of the authors of Diseases from Space is a famous astronomer, the other an applied mathematician. Neither, then, is a biologist, although they wrote together an earlier book, Lifecloud, claiming that life arrived on earth from interstellar space. They write on biological matters in a style more confidently asseverative than that of any professional biologist known to me. A sentence such as “the most important quality of biology lies in its ability to increase numbers explosively” is to my way of thinking barely literate. The same goes for such a statement as “harmful bacteria seek to multiply their numbers uncontrollably.” I don’t think much of the title, either. It is not diseases, but disease-causing agents such as bacteria and viruses that land—or as I believe do not land—on the earth from outer space. During the greater part of the book the authors grapple with the possibility that various disease-causing agents reach us from outer space—though in places (e.g., page 4) they entertain the less farfetched hypothesis of their earlier book that it is only “life-forming materials” that rain upon us from the outside.
At a fairly early stage in the book the authors call attention to the extreme specificity of viruses in relation to cells whose synthetic machinery they subvert.
This raises the question of how a virus that evolved in some place other than the Earth could have become equipped with the ability to attack cells here on the Earth. The question is sharpened by the fact that specific viruses only attack specific kinds of cell. How, one may wonder, could a virus coming from a comet have foreseen the kind of living cell it was going to encounter after its arrival here on Earth?
The authors set their misgivings at rest thus:
There is obviously no …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.