Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, the Science Studios were planning an event that we wanted to call The Plague. The conversation was to be a serious exchange on the science of pandemics, particularly those that cross the species barrier, but with the vibe of a natural disaster film: the subject plausible, terrifying, but never going to happen to us. This sense of imperviousness must be the consequence of a collective amnesia that persists despite an Ebola outbreak, the scourge of HIV, the pale memory of Swine flu or Avian flu. At the event we were going to hand out little blue surgical masks as a gag. Not so funny anymore.

On October 29th, only five days before the election, we did, indeed, host an event called The Plague, though now the title resonates with palpable anxiety and very present grief. The disaster isn’t just plausible, it’s here. And masks are no joke. In a recent New Yorker article, the Pulitzer Prize winner Siddhartha Mukherjee wrote chillingly of the coronavirus pandemic as a scientist, a doctor, and a human in this fragile time. Our Director of Sciences, Janna Levin, invited Prof. Mukherjee to discuss COVID-19, the collapse of the medical system, vaccines, and our defenselessness against the inevitability of the next virus to jump from animals and infect humans.

Siddhartha Mukherjee is a Pulitzer Prize winner, an Assistant Professor of Medicine, and a staff physician at Columbia University Medical Center. His books include The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer and The Gene: An Intimate History.

Janna Levin is the Director of Sciences and Chair of the Science Studios at Pioneer Works. She is also a Guggenheim Fellow and the Claire Tow Professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University. Her forthcoming book Black Hole Survival Guide will be published this November 2020.

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The Pioneer Works Broadcast is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Program in Public Understanding of Science and Technology, bridging the two cultures of science and the arts.