If there was ever a time to hug a scientist, now is that time. But please don’t. Instead, try your favorite “Coronavirus Hello,” which I think is no longer supposed to be a elbow-bump (too close to the sneeze-catching crook of the arm). So, maybe try some jazz hands, instead. Hellooooo, you might say from a safe social distance, waggling your fingers winningly, to show gratitude for the humans who are working hard to save our lives, right this very moment.
Lots of us love the idea of science. Growing up in the Seventies, I spent hours of my long, daydreamy summers stirring up stinky chemistry set solutions in our cool suburban basement. But by the time I got to high school, Advanced Biology class pressed on the far edge of my comfort zone. Chemistry and Physics classes, with macho teachers and only a handful of the smartest, toughest girls willing to endure the chilly climate of those labs, made it all the easier for me to fall back into reading about science, rather than imagining myself doing the work. That worldwide experience narrows the science pipeline for girls and women, whose brainpower is still missing from most scientific fields.
Sexism almost silenced Rachel Carson, but still she persisted. For your quarantine reading, I recommend Carson's tour de force, Silent Spring, even timelier now than when she published it in 1962, written while she was dying of breast cancer. She draws us in with her lush botanical descriptions of nature in balance — summer roadsides edged with "laurel, viburnum and alder, great ferns and wildflowers”; with winter birds gorging on “the berries and on the seed heads of the dried weeds rising above the snow” (2). Then, we hear her urgency, as a few pages later she teaches us to see the “ingenious” and terrible logic of manipulated hydrocarbon molecules that destroy nature’s balance with biocides. She does not coddle her reader. Science doesn’t coddle.
Scientists, though, might need a cuddle right now — but follow CDC guidelines! If you see a scientist and you’re not a jazz-hands kind of person, maybe try the V-fingered Vulcan salutation you've practiced in private, or the Katniss Everdeen three-fingered Mockingjay salute. Keep your distance, but for heaven's sake, thank the folks who are teaching us about “flattening the curve” of the coronavirus’s spread with the secular trinity you should repeat right now: Wash your hands; Don’t touch your face; Stay home when you’re sick. It’s not rocket science, but it is science, and it can save lives.
I can only guess at the suppressed screams public health workers who have preached hand-washing for well over a century, as they encounter all of us rubes who seem shocked that there is science -- and molecules! — in soap. Like children, we must be taught, again, to sing while scrubbing, so that we stay at this basic task long enough be useful to the human herd. I imagine the righteous fury of Florence Nightingale, who pushed Victorian women to become expert and efficient managers in hospitals filled with men. You can hear her irritation in her 1859 book severely titled Notes on Nursing, What it Is and What it is Not, as she exhorts nurses to train those around them in gloriously wrought language: “But again, to look to all these things yourself does not mean to do them yourself. If you do it, it is by so much the better, certainly, than if it were not done at all. But can you not insure that it is done when not done by yourself? Can you insure that it is not undone when your back is turned?” (29). Nightingale spins in her grave, I fear, as experts in 2020 labor, still, to teach politicians and the public to take science seriously, to understand the math of infection rates, and to share the work of public health in order to reduce human misery.
If you’re a scientist or heath care provider, I hope you hear our global gratitude. We thank you for your patience with the scientific illiteracy of so many of us. We’re trying to do better. We’re washing our hands. We’re trying to flatten the curve. We’re placing our hands over our hearts, bowing to you from the safe social distance of 2-3 meters ... or is it 4.5 meters? Oh, dear.
Here’s my favorite hand-washing song. What’s yours?
Music: "Gaslighter" by the Dixie Chicks