After a few weeks of making myself crazy—wait, I touched the metal gate at the dog park, the virus lives on metal for I forget how long but who knows where those greyhound owners have been lately—cannot blow my nose now, dammit—nobody is looking, I will use the hem of my T-shirt—wait, there are wipes in the car—okay, got the wipes, wiped the key, the car door, what about the dog’s leather lead?—I realized I needed a new approach. A scientific approach.
Steady empirical reasoning does not come naturally to me. Spontaneity, intuition, and imagination do. But spontaneity, intuition, and imagination are of scant help during a pandemic.
I sneak onto the Science Buddies site to remind myself, in fourth-grade vocabulary, just what the scientific method looks like. To ponder cause-and-effect relationships (droplets laden with virus causing me to get sick), I must ask questions and carefully gather and examine the physical evidence. Wait—no! I have zero intention of going anywhere near the physical evidence. This is not a controlled experiment, just an attempt to control my environment.
Back to Google I go, this time to search for laboratory protocols to prevent contamination. This comes closer: I am to wear gloves and a lab coat (maybe a jacket I wear only to the park and remove before entering my home?), wipe down surfaces, sterilize equipment (I dunk my car keys in alcohol), stay organized (suddenly there is so much to think about with each outing).
Lining up my sterile keys, driver’s license, the dog’s lead, and a container of wipes, I feel germ-free and precise. In the spirit of science, I try to think experimentally: Will Kleenex absorb the virus if I use it to cover my fingers when I open the gate? Or, if I use my fingers, can I then carefully bunch a Kleenex to itch my face? There are a million hypotheticals, and I have no data. Meanwhile, all this control requires hypervigilance, caution tipping toward paranoia. Normally, this is not a mental state I can sustain. Even during a pandemic, my mood fluctuates wildly, bouncing off paranoia and landing in breezy devil-may-care nonchalance for about five minutes, then inching toward the nervous middle ground, with escapes that involve copious amounts of delicious food in weird combinations. (Also beer and TV or wine and a good book; the pattern is one of numbing and distraction.) How do scientists stay so disciplined? I am beginning to understand why those who rely on hard data in controlled experiments roll their eyes at the sloppiness of emotion and intuition….
Six decades ago, C.P. Snow gave an instantly famous lecture at the University of Cambridge about this very division. He was bemoaning the chasm between “The Two Cultures,” the sciences and the humanities, and people have been citing that lecture-turned-book ever since. Snow humbled me, reminding me not to be snooty about physicists who could not quote Shakespeare even as I stumbled to explain simple gravity. Otherwise, the chasm never bothered me, unless the liberal arts were gasping for funding or a cocktail party conversation proved awkward. But now I am seeing it play out in my life, where until now, poetry and philosophy have proven far more reliable in a catastrophe than alcohol and bleach. Will COVID-19 kill more artists and writers than scientists? Or will the vivid imagination encouraged by the humanities alarm us into the methodical, careful behavior that comes so hard?
There is another factor, one Snow himself mentioned: moral responsibility. One slip-up with a germy surface and I could become a carrier, sickening and perhaps killing someone else. Or many others. “A scientist has to be neutral in his search for the truth,” Snow wrote, “but he cannot be neutral as to the use of that truth when found. If you know more than other people, you have more responsibility, rather than less.” The quote is a stretch, because I do not know more, but my tiniest actions have a lethal power I never anticipated. As do everyone else’s.
When Illinois went into lock-down, a friend who is a nurse informed me that she had ordered me a mask weeks earlier, just in case, because she knew I would not heed her warnings back in February. Now I am heeding everything, asking her advice about handling the mail, cardboard boxes, cash… Slowly my brain is responding, entering a new mode. All by myself, I realize that I should not bring my reusable, eco-friendly bags into the grocery store. I become fastidious, investigating any possible source of contamination and zapping it. There is something deeply satisfying about this scrupulous attention to detail, this controlling for every possible variable. I have never felt cleaner, never more vulnerable and simultaneously more in control.
The satisfaction of science holds me for several days. There is no endgame, though, no exciting discovery to anticipate. Repeating the basic protocol over and over again is necessary but boring. The moral imperative has not altered, but turning our cheerfully messy home into a sterile laboratory feels artificial and grim. Faithfully going through the new routine, I concentrate hard, willing these precautions to become automatic.
Then I think of another filter: forensics. Here is a science that is relevant and also congenial, after all these years of reading crime fiction. Its procedural care rewards the imagination without need of actual death. Pretending that I am a homicide detective, I muster all the best-practices I have absorbed. Where would there be trace evidence? Look for unlikely fingerprints. Where might there be toxins? Capture any foreign material. What temperature will speed decomposition? Do nothing to contaminate the crime scene.
Science can be filtered through fiction just as surely as fiction can be inspired by science. C.P. Snow would be so pleased.