Networked Blogs on Facebook is a clever little app that I’ve liked this week. I received a request from my friend Trev asking me to confirm him as author of his blog; I did so and decided to put this blog on there. I had to ask several friends to confirm me as its author; which they did and now Elizabeth has asked me to confirm her authorship of her blog. Within my small corner of the blogosphere, Networked blogs are going viral. Networked Blogs is a fantastic example of an Ideavirus.
As I work for a science museum, albeit one set in a beautiful Grade II listed Queen Anne house thereby ticking more boxes than merely the science, I’ve felt a desire as well as a need to acquaint myself with that science. At the Edward Jenner Museum that science is smallpox (a truly horrifying virus that killed one in three of those unlucky enough to be infected and spread to every corner of the globe) and its eradication thanks to the development of a vaccination by Dr Jenner in 1796.
While 2010 is the 30 year anniversary of the eradication of smallpox, it is far from being relegated to medical history. A Horizon documentary, Why do viruses kill? made reference to smallpox as a stepping stone to our understanding of disease and our relationship with viruses. While Horizon focused on Professor D A Henderson of the Centre of Biosecurity of UPMC saying that “it’s quite possible that this man has saved more lives than anyone else alive today,” the person to save more lives than anyone, dead or alive is arguably Edward Jenner. Professor D A Henderson headed up the World Health Organisation to realise Jenner’s dream of smallpox eradication but it all began with a country doctor in Berkeley.
Vaccination is such a part of our lives that we sometimes fail to remember how extraordinary it is. Edward Jenner is one of ten scientists to feature on the set of stamps issued by Royal Mail today to commemorate their 350th Anniversary but Jenner was accepted as a fellow of the Royal Society for his work on cuckoo’s; when it came to vaccination he experienced a certain degree of ridicule. When you stop and think about it, it is pretty bizarre to put puss from a diseased pock into a newly opened wound.
It was good news for the intelligent and rational when Andrew Wakefield withdrew his terrible piece of research that he used to platform his views on the link between the MMR jab and autism but while unforgivable that Wakefield touted his peculiar ideas as science fact; that he had his peculiar ideas is perhaps not so strange. That is why I think it’s so important to celebrate Jenner’s work. His story is not just that of vaccination but about good science and having the confidence to push the boundaries of societal understanding for the greater good. And Jenner didn’t just develop vaccination; he began one of the most important branches of modern medicine, he is the Father of Immunology. Our understanding of allergies, autoimmune diseases and transplantation originate with his fundamental work. Quite right that the Royal Society put him in their top ten, Edward Jenner changed science.
My enthusiasm for all things Jenner is hardly subtle but what I need to do is start to infect people with it. Several people have done very good work with marketing viruses; Luke Jerram combines science and art with his staggeringly beautiful glass sculptures and Natalie Ireland encouraged people to knit viruses as part of the 2009 Manchester Science Festival. Seeing a virus in glass or wool changes our perfection of it as it takes it from the microscopic beyond the realms of many of our imaginations to something tangible that we can begin to relate to. Something that visitors to the Facebook group I help run will recognise is the Friday virus game that I put up. I’ve researched a number of these simple, yet rather addictive, games and hope that in addition to people playing them and picking up some ideas about viruses, they’ll recommend them to their friends.
The key is the idea. Jerram’s idea of beauty, Ireland’s idea of quirky, my idea of playful. Science needs reimagining as something that is far from dull. I’ve been guilty of this myself as I simply failed to appreciate the relevancy of science to my life. I appreciated all of the hard work the clever people put into it but unless I had an actual consumable product; it was incomprehendable abstraction. I’ve got some big ideas that I hope to have the opportunity to explore; ideas that take the science and make it relevant to people’s lives. Because once an idea has a host it can infect, it’s ripe for spreading! All you need to do is fit the idea molecules to the host.