Life Science Blog

Knowledge = Know the Ledge

January 25, 2008

I see a flowering plant; a botanist sees a growth of poison hemlock, in the genus Conium and with typical foliation. This flora contains a potent neurotoxin, administered by the ancient Greeks in the execution of Socrates, so the story goes.

To those in the know, reality is not benignly stocked with innocuous objects. Rather, insidious dangers both seen and unseen lurk in leaves, in others’ effluvia, and in our double-helixes. So which is worse: the erudite hypochondriac’s fear of biological conspiracies, or the blithe simpleton’s ignorance of contagious peril?

Dr. Carol Reiss researches how viruses infiltrate our neurological systems at New York University. She is a small, gray-haired woman, with eyes narrowed behind her glasses in steady concentration. One might misidentify Dr. Reiss and more expect to find her in a second grade classroom teaching arithmetic, rather than in a university laboratory manipulating microbes.

I ask her when she gets the flu, does she get scared? With her particularly keen awareness of a virus’ machinations in the invisible war it wages against her, is she concerned?

But she replies that when she wakes with a fever, she is not perturbed by the invading virus – she is on to them. “Knowledge is power” she states coolly, sorceress-like, secure in the axiom.

Life – a balancing of reasoned caution with defiant departure. But consult a botanist’s guide before you go searching for wild herbs . . . hemlock looks remarkably like fennel and parsley.


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