Science as benefit to society, miasmology, and urban sprawl. What do they all have in common, apart from being very interesting topics? They are all covered in great detail in Steven Johnson's amazing book, "The Ghost Map." Johnson explores the city of London during the most virulent outbreak of cholera through the eyes of the city, its citizens, and the bacteria itself. It's a disturbing read considering the amount of detail how goes into when discussing the various occupations of Londoners during this time period (1850s). From raw sewage scrapers, to muck dealers and slime peddlers, Victorian England had it all! In reading these parts, I couldn't help but be reminded of the famous scene in Monthy Python's "Quest For the Holy Grail" where the two peasants are in the middle of an empty field, in the rain, piling mud in heaps for no reason.
ARTHUR: [To WOMAN] I am your king!
WOMAN: [To ARTHUR, stopping her muck-piling] Well, I didn’t vote for you.
ARTHUR: You don’t vote for kings!
The Ghost Map tells the true story of John Snow and Rev. Henry Whitehead, and how they systematically disproved the idea that disease is caused by foul-smelling odors. It tells how persistent ideas can be, even in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary (homeopathy, anyone?). The thing that struck me was how people ignored seemingly obvious cures in favor of ideas that were so nebulous and had such a horrible track-record of success.
Cholera, it turns out, causes the victim to expel water from every possible orifice on their body. Victims essentially die from dehydration. The obvious solution to dying from loosing all of your bodily fluids would be to replace them. Simply drinking water with a little salt in it holds most people over until they get rid of the bacteria on their own. That's it. Loosing a bunch of water? Drink more. That simple idea was completely missed by nearly every person in the medical establishment of the time. It has become so effectively treated with an intravenous saline drip, that people are routinely infected with cholera in lab settings to test their effects, with virtually no chance of loosing a life.
I found myself shaking my head in disbelief more than once reading this. It's depressing to think that simple ideas like, "Don't eat other people's feces," And "If you start spraying water out of your eyes, ass, and mouth you should probably replace it," haven't made it to some parts of the world. Poor sanitation, lack of basic (and I mean basic) medical knowledge, and extreme urban density are some of the biggest problems facing 3/4ths of the world's population. It's disheartening to think even while it's so easily cured on an individual basis, it's so hard to fight at a population level.
< /rant >