For many non-scientists there is no distinction between different scientists. Must scientists have an answer for everything?
When you say COVID-19, you say confusion.
We, the smart ones, the suspicious, the conspiracy paranoids, the frightened, the increasingly confused. Society all of a sudden came to a stop, but it transmits information at a very high speed.
I’m a researcher and I deal with catalysis. Most of the current scientific research is based on catalysis. In most cases, the word “catalysis” is quickly replaced by “chemistry” by many of the non-scientists that I meet.
Similarly, the word “chemistry” is easily coupled with “science”, “molecules”, “white coat”, “laboratory”, and there you have it: scientist. Although I have little to do with the invisible little enemy, the virus, the question that usually comes: Do you know anything about it?
Be it mother, aunt, or friend, they all refer to us chemists as “simply” scientists.
It is, therefore, necessary to question our role as scientists at this particular time.
I thought about it, because I realized that I, too, didn’t know how to answer some questions with certainty. I was afraid of being too afraid, and then I had the opposite fear of being superficial and shameless towards something that should not be underestimated.
How much my wrong evaluation could make someone imprudent? How much my fear could make someone overly scared?
I’m not an influencer, certainly not.
But I’ve talked with many people, family, friends, and also on the street while waiting in the long lines before entering the supermarket: “You surely know more about it than I do because you work with these things …”. Not quite true, but someone said that because I am a researcher who works at the university.
What to do? I should have said “I have nothing to do with it”. No.
Not only because “it is not quite true”, but “it’s not like that at all”!
It is clear that there is a big problem with misinformation. We have seen and heard everything: reliable news, fake news, and then viral messages, which created absolute panic – “I could die if I breathe” – or the feeling of being invincible – “no one dies because of the coronavirus”.
I observed the awkward exaggeration of our society and I understood that as a chemist, and as a scientist, I can communicate.
But how to communicate?
When Cézanne provocatively stated that he wanted to shock Paris with the academic painting of an apple, he actually wanted to amaze by showing the simplest and humblest life of which the apple is the symbol of.
One must try to take something as small and pure as a fruit and detach it from the tree. Knowledge helps us to understand what is right and what is not. Optimism only comes from knowledge.
A very recent post published on Facebook makes fun of the controversial information about the coronavirus. The inaccuracy that is often found on social media is only the representation of our confused faces. It is the proof of all the mistakes that could have been avoided.
The scientific community has not always shown fruits as simple as an apple. On the contrary. It should have done it, surprising us with its actual simplicity.
That Facebook post I alluded to earlier provided me with useful insight into what’s wrong. I will write some of the statements below and try to answer with an apple.
“Facemasks are useless” – but wearing one can save your life: Wearing a facemask reduces the risk of contagion from 70 % to 1.5 %. Easy, you must wear it.
“Gloves won’t be useful” – but they can be useful: Common spaces are full of objects that we all touch. Using gloves in places where we most frequently touch objects, such as supermarkets and public transport, can be very helpful.
“The virus is active on surfaces for two hours. No, four hours. Six hours?” – Who offers more? The answer is simple: different surfaces, different times. A single rule: clean surfaces and wash your hands. If you don’t touch your nose, eyes, and mouth with infected hands, you can’t get sick from viruses picked up from surfaces.
“The virus has no effect on children except those it affects” – children often have mild symptoms. However, they can spread the virus like everyone else.
“You will have several symptoms when you are sick”, or “you can get sick without symptoms, or be contagious or not, at the patient’s discretion” – Asymptomatic means having a disease without showing its symptoms at the same time. From contagion to the appearance of the first symptoms, we are all asymptomatic. However, in that time frame we can transmit the virus. Thus, we need to pay maximum attention and to avoid contact with others.
Moreover, there is the controversy about vaccines. “They are trying to develop a vaccine for a virus that mutates and that does not produce antibodies”. “Who is healed cannot get sick again, or maybe they can?”: It’s difficult to find the right apple. Not all diseases confer good immunity. When a disease confers good immunity, we might obtain a good vaccine. On the other hand, some diseases do not confer immunity and, therefore, the vaccine does not work.
What about COVID-19?
We are in the process of observing those who have contracted the virus and have been cured to assess whether this has given them immunity. If the cured people show good immunity, it will be possible to develop a vaccine.
The apples I have in mind are clear and simple concepts that all scientists should keep to hand, to speak about with everybody.
Certainties can calm both excessive fear and overconfident feelings. It is true that science cannot always provide certainties, but there are some scientific results that can provide certain answers. As certain as the taste we will taste when we bite into a fruit as simple as an apple.
Let’s remember to be scientists but let us not forget what an apple is.
Marta Stucchi is a post-doctoral fellow at the chemistry department of the University of Milan, Italy. She obtained her M.Sc. degree in industrial chemistry and her Ph.D. in industrial chemistry from the same university. Before coming back to Milan, she worked as a post-doc researcher at the chemical engineering department of the Polytechnique of Montreal at the University of Montreal, Canada.
In her research, Marta Stucchi deals with catalysis and the synthesis of catalysts for biomass conversion. During her Ph.D., she mainly dealt with photocatalysis and the synthesis of innovative materials for the purification of air and water.
She is carrying out activities to improve interactions between schools and universities and to promote the importance of teaching chemistry in high schools, recognizing the importance of scientific dissemination to break down scientific misinformation.
Marta Stucchi, University of Milan, won first prize in the 2nd 1000xChemistry competition with this essay.