A few decades ago, I was in Madison, USA, working on my doctoral thesis. The subject at hand fascinated me and I devoted a huge number of hours both on weekdays and at weekends. But there was another concern that was almost as important: finding a partner. So Friday night’s party was a must. You served yourself a beer, approached some particularly attractive girl, and started a conversation. It was going well until the fateful question came:
“And what are you working on?”
—I’m studying the secondary production of heterotrophic bacteria in the plankton of Lake Mendota.
The girl had heard all about Lake Mendota, because it was the largest lake in the city, where we all went swimming in the summer and ice skating in the winter. But she did not assimilate a single word from the rest of the sentence. I could see my mistake, my gross mistake, on the girl’s face. And the irreversible answer came:
End of conversation.
It took me a few months to find a way to prevent this dire ending. But once discovered, the response was a complete success:
“I am studying the sexual behaviour of bacteria in Lake Mendota,” became my answer.
The girl’s face was initially puzzled and then came the expected reply:
And from there the conversation became much more interesting.
This is precisely the problem that we scientists face when we try to convey to our family, friends and the general public the fascination, the enthusiasm for what we do, the beauty of what we study. We are usually unable to present our subject in a way that is attractive in the first place and secondly relatable to our audience. So this book is a unique contribution to dissemination. To use a topic that many of us are familiar with, football, to explain clearly and precisely an extraordinarily complex topic such as an epidemic, even more, if it is an epidemic of a new virus of which we know almost nothing, is a rare jewel.
The reader will learn many useful things such as why you should wash your hands, what is the difference between the different tests to detect the virus, the characteristics of different masks and many other things. However, these are always accompanied by images of football. The differences between very effective and less effective forwards serve to compare the infectivity of different viruses. The fearsome penalty shoot-outs help to compare the different tests to detect the virus. Monchi’s fantastic signings at Sevilla help us understand the false negatives that many tests have. Almost any aspect of football has its equivalent in the coronavirus.
The subject is treated with a certain irony that makes the tragedy that we are living more bearable. It is a style completely removed from the bold statements of rulers and opposition, of politicians locked in their fights, of media scientists bloated from their huge egos, of celebrities opining without having the remotest idea of how epidemics work, of ignoramuses who recommend absurd treatments. Everything is told with the simplicity and humility of the researcher who is aware that we know much less than we imagine, that prudence is essential, but that step by step, with well-conducted experiments, we move forward safely towards solving the problem. The author combines irony and rigour with respect for the suffering of affected human beings, which results in some emotional passages. Now, that’s a very difficult balance to achieve. The text conveys an attitude of confidence in research, respect for human beings and for biology, and prudence. A sage attitude essential in times of pandemic.
Research professor at the CSIC at the National Centre for Biotechnology, scientific disseminator and writer.
City of Barcelona Scientific Research Award, member of the American Academy of Microbiology, member of the International Committee for Marine Microbes (ICoMM), representative of Spain on the European Polar Board and member of the Spanish committee of the Scientific Committee for Antartic Research (SCAR).