An Analysis on ‘The Great Influenza’

*WRITTEN BY AARON HAI*

https://archive.org/stream/pdfy-pdJ_daYvi_Eh93Yc/The%20Great%20Influenza%20[The%20Story%20Of%20The%20Deadliest%20Plague%20In%20History]_djvu.txt (pdf of The Great Influenza)


In his account of the flu epidemic, “The Great Influenza”, John Barry exemplifies the scientific research process as embarking on an adventure into the unknown, where the scientists find themselves in the boots of a pioneer, searching through the wilderness of their imagination, in an effort to achieve their ultimate goal of striking rich on a scientific breakthrough. He recognizes the difficulty of scientific research, yet praises it as a journey in which the trailblazer must achieve a delicate balance between grasping fact or fiction, and uses contrasting diction, stunning imagery, and analogy to create a exploration where the means justify the ends.

Barry begins by defining the significant two terms in which he characterizes scientific research to revolves around: certainty and uncertainty. The immediate juxtaposition he places upon the two terms – certainty embodying “ strength”, a fortified wall with which the scientist could lean on, as opposed to uncertainty, symbolizing “weakness”, and a culmination of man’s fears- places emphasis on the sharp contrast of the two feelings scientists must juggle within their own hearts and minds to even begin their research. By placing the antithesis to such an abstract term such as uncertainty, Barry helps convey the context and meaning of how uncertainty should be viewed. He regards scientists as beings with “ not only intelligence, and curiosity, but passion, patience, creativity, self sufficiency, and courage”, a Renaissance man of the pioneering world. Yet, the courage is not one recalling of  a warrior’s bravery in battle, but instead, the courage to delve deeper into mystery, the courage possessed by a seeker of truths, where one is bold enough to “accept- and indeed, embrace- uncertainty.” Yet this feat is one much more easier said than done as all humans are prone to the insecurities and fearfulness of losing all the light they previously clung onto.  This insecurity of man is prevalent throughout history, with the initial seedlings of the Scientific Revolution throwing the previously religion oriented societies of America and Europe into turmoil. Barry praises the scientists who, even without the backbone of fact to guide them, there are a few brave souls daring to venture out into the deep part of the “wilderness region”. Achieving this fragile balance between cherishing fact and embracing fiction was extremely meticulous and heart racking in the time of the Influenza. With lives being lost everyday to this widespread enemy, enormous pressure was weighing down on the shoulders of the scientists who had to race against time to create a vaccine in which even then, may not mean certain immunization from the flu. He applauds the scientists who dare to utilize their own potential to create concrete results, straying away from the typical “ scientific method and its restrictive, systematic procedures. By allowing themselves to be engulfed into a world where even dreams can be a reality, both trusting certainty and uncertainty becomes a necessity for success.

Barry illuminates the scientists’ path to be arduous and time consuming with tools necessary for their success being products of their mind. After embracing the phenomenon of “uncertainty” and giving up the weeds of concrete knowledge rooting them to the ground, scientists enter a realm of endless possibilities. Barry produces a beautiful image of the scientist being a blind child probing his or her way through the darkness. Children, when they are still young and ignorant, wield an extraordinary imagination. Still in the early stages on the path of life in which schoolwork, social media, and reality’s limits have not yet caged their minds, young children often come up with the most wildest of ideas, letting their ideas fly freely, unrestrictedly. The youth create these possibilities that even adults cannot fathom through asking questions, that is simply how they learn, the answers of their questions being the catalyst to spark their sense of creativity. Similarly, the scientist must find it within themselves to utilize the skill they might have thought disappeared with their aging, in this jungle where they have “nothing to believe in but the process of inquiry”.

Barry crafts the analogy of scientists who embark on their own scientific research to be the wondrous pioneers of their fields. He commends  “real” scientists to “ exist on the frontier”, being daring enough to test waters in which the depth is still unknown. Just as how Americans saw the West, the frontier, as opportunity, a place to start over during the Manifest Destiny era, scientists also venture into this region eager to discover their own “opportunity”, a scientific breakthrough, which, during this period, could ultimately end the flu pandemic. With not the physical dangers of starvation, disease, and death, but abstract peril of taking a wrong step that could “take one off a cliff” of thoughts and hypotheses, scientists and pioneers alike must accept the chance at failure in striving to reach their final destinations. He chooses to use, even in a world where imagination is the scientist’s arsenal, conventional pioneer tools such as “ shovels”, “picks”, and “dynamite”. The delicate balance in which the scientist must create between over exploiting the information and being too “indiscriminately destructive”  or not being gentle enough to the point where he or she only “dig(s) up dirt but cannot penetrate rock” to reach the concrete information they seek is reminiscent of how pioneers who mined for gold must be wary of how much rock they needed to rupture. Barry sheds both pioneers and scientists in the same light to signify the similarity of both wanting and having to create their individual routes in an effort for their “claim to fame”.

Barry uses the interior of the rock to symbolize the scientific discovery and the rough outer shell of the rock to be the final step the scientist must crack. He alludes to the formation of gems and geodes in reality, being beautiful manifestations of nature hidden inside, only visible when the rock is split open. Correspondingly, the “ crystal” in which the scientist creates “ to precipitate an order out of chaos, to create from, structure, and direction” symbolizes the culmination of the scientists ideas into something becoming tangible, concrete, and beautiful. Yet, when the scientist finally cracks open the rock, the expedition in which they embarked on for weeks and months on end will be immediately succeeded by a  “flood of colleagues [who] will pave roads over the path laid, and those roads will be orderly and straight, taking an investigator in minutes to the place the pioneer spent months and years looking for.” Barry gives a negative connotation to the ones who essentially “cheat” characterizing it as a “flood” , a natural disaster typically unwanted by society with a negative connotation. Those who just wait for others to give them the information necessary ultimately learn nothing, it is through the sweat and grit of the learning experience itself in where one gains true knowledge. This holds to be especially important with the scenario presented by Barry, where the scientist who not only discovered but unveiled new mysteries surrounding the flu virus is what the medical world needed. Those who just scramble behind the original trailblazer are mere manufacturers making sure the “perfect tool is now available for purchase”.

Overall, Barry characterizes scientific research to be a much more difficult and tedious journey then the stereotypical step by step procedure. Scientists must not only figure out what they hope to achieve, produce the means to achieve it in a realm where anything is possible, but also figure out how to achieve this goal in the most delicate way. Through imagery, symbolization, and analogy, Barry reveres scientists as the pioneers of the scientific research field.

Science has been heavily emphasized on and utilized by multiple countries globally, and it has not only helped these countries progress economically but also socially. What do you think are the negative aspects to the scientific method? If you believe there are none, why and how?

What do you think?

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