Reading Roundup: The Flu, Yoo, and Hamilton Too

By Pat Joseph

Viral killer, qu’est-ce que c’est?

Influenza cases continue to rise in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control (which briefly shut down last week along with the rest of the federal government) reports that this year’s flu epidemic has so far had the greatest impact on those over 65, followed by those ages 50-65. The latest report from the CDC shows 37 infant deaths, but as USA Today reports, Baby Boomers are showing higher rates of infection than their grandchildren.

As most people know, the flu is a virus. Less well known is that biologists don’t consider viruses to be living things, despite the fact that doctors regularly talk about ‘live virus’ and ‘killed virus’ vaccines. Instead, the infinitesimal replicating machines exist in a kind of biological gray zone—something between life and non-life.

“The language is obviously inconsistent,” admitted Berkeley epidemiologist Art Reingold in an earlier piece we did on the 1918 flu pandemic. The key thing to understand, he stressed, is that while some viruses can ‘survive’ on, say, a door knob or a coffee mug, under certain conditions, they can’t replicate. For that they need a cell. 

Bad news, though: A new study shows that it’s not necessary to cough or sneeze to spread the flu. Just breathing is enough. 

Dr. Stanley, I presume

As it happens, the discovery that viruses are particles made up of proteins is credited to UC Berkeley biochemist Wendell Stanley(1904-1971), who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1946. By the time he won the prize, he had turned his focus to inoculating soldiers against the flu. This is something that may have proved critical to the war effort. The 1918 flu pandemic was a major factor in WWI and killed far more people than combat did. Stanley, after whom Berkeley’s Stanley Hall is named, succeeded in creating an early flu vaccine, which proved at least partially effective.

He would later proclaim that “viruses hold the key to the modification—for better or worse—of all life. They hold the key to the secret of life, to the solution of the cancer problem, to biological evolution, to the understanding and control of heredity, perhaps to the nature of all future life on earth.”

It’s interesting to note that, a half century later, scientists suspect that viruses may have have been key to the development of complex life. And CRISPR/Cas9, the revolutionary new gene-editing tool pioneered by Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna, was discovered by observing how bacteria neutralize viral invaders. Scientists are now exploring ways to use the tool as an antiviral strategy in humans.

If you missed last Friday’s discussion between Doudna and the New Yorker’s Siddhartha Mukherjee, “The Future of Humans,” you can catch it here.

Et tu, Yoo?

The New York Times is reporting that President Trump ordered the firing of Robert Mueller, the special counsel in charge of the Russia investigation, last June. The president backed down, sources say, after top White House counsel refused the order and threatened to resign. Trump, not surprisingly, has dismissed it all as “fake news.”

Berkeley Law’s John Yoo, himself former Deputy Assistant Attorney General under President George W. Bush, was on Fox News earlier this week. He said he thinks Trump should welcome the interview with Mueller’s team and that the focus of the investigation has likely shifted from collusion to obstruction. If the president cooperates, Yoo thinks the probe will likely wrap up by the end the year.

Professor Yoo, whose name is most closely associated with the so-called Torture Memos, is known as a staunch advocate of expanded executive power. Nevertheless, he has been fiercely critical of Trump’s abuse of that power. Earlier in the month, he penned an opinion piece for the Times that started:

Faced with President Trump’s executive orders suspending immigration from several Muslim-majority nations and ordering the building of a border wall, and his threats to terminate the North American Free Trade Agreement, even Alexander Hamilton, our nation’s most ardent proponent of executive power, would be worried by now.

Who lives, who dies, who tells your story

Speaking of Alexander Hamilton, Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical, was the subject of this year’s On the Same Page program at Berkeley, which endeavors to create campus-wide discussion around a common theme and/or particular piece of art or scholarship. Run by the College of Letters and Science, past subjects have included physicist Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, Ang Lee’s film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (produced by Berkeley alum James Schamus) and Ansel Adams’s photo book, Fiat Lux.  

Hamilton has been a cultural sensation, to say the least. Who but a true artist would have thought to tell the story of the founding fathers with Hamilton as the hero, let alone in rap and portrayed by actors of color?

American audiences were enthralled. American historians—not so much.

A quick look at the reading on the resources page at the On the Same Page website reveals a host of dissenting voices from scholars who point out that, among other things, the play exaggerates Hamilton’s devotion to abolition and his support of immigration. Far and away the angriest (and most entertaining) response is by novelist and Berkeley English professor emeritus Ismael Reed, called “Black Actors Dress Up Like Slave Traders … and It’s Not Halloween.”

As far as Reed is concerned, Hamilton’s life has been “scrubbed with a kind of historical Ajax until it sparkles. His reputation has been shored up as an abolitionist and someone who was opposed to slavery. Not true.” He’s just getting started. To channel one of the good professor’s heroes’, Muhammad Ali, If you like a good screed, read Reed.

Don’t worry about the government

On a final note: You may wonder what happens to operations at Berkeley Lab in the event of a government shutdown. We put in a call to the lab earlier this week and were directed to the Department of Energy for answers. Despite multiple requests, we didn’t get a call-back. But, googling around, we did find thisthis, and this

And since there’re two Talking Heads references in this roundup, here’s a little throwback to that time 40 years ago when the band played Sproul Plaza.

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