c.2020, Bloomsbury
70 pages, e-book only

Like nearly everyone, you’re on lockdown.

You can get out, strategically. Mostly, you stay home a lot, watching movies and doing more puzzles than you have in the last 10 years, combined. Your hands are raw from washing, and you’re wondering how this all happened. Author and physicist Paolo Giordano explains in his new book “How Contagion Works.”

COVID-19 (or “Co V-2,” as Giordano refers to the disease) is unique, but not too much: SARS, for example, was a coronavirus, too, but Co V-2 is the “first virus to spread this quickly on a global scale.” It’s also the first virus to show us how we act as a modern social species. This virus takes us “above identities and cultures…”

That’s not to say that we can pretend this virus hates us; viruses don’t have brains, so we can’t make the mistake of blaming it as though it was a sentient entity. Co V-2, says Giordano, “Doesn’t care about us, our age, gender, nationality, personal preferences.” A virus like this just is.

Epidemics, however, “are mathematical emergencies first and foremost” and contagion is a “chain reaction” that grows exponentially, and with speed. Scientists use the symbol R0 (pronounced R-naught) to indicate a level of contagion; to put Co V-2 in perspective, its R0 is 2.5. Measles has a R0 of 15. The Spanish flu’s R0 was 2.1. The spread is halted when R0 is at 1. Social isolation “equals dragging down the R0 value” and if we stop isolating too soon, there is a “high likelihood” that the virus will return.

That’s hard to do; by nature, we hate altering our behavior and self-isolation is a big alteration but, says Giordano, we have two choices here: we either find a vaccine or we have patience. We are more connected than we realize, we move around too much, and “we know that the epidemic changes if we change.” And speaking of that, he says we should take a hard look at climate change because he blames a lot of this virus on “our aggressive behavior toward the environment…”

If we’re not careful, “what is happening with COVID-19 will keep happening more often.”

Even as you read this review, says author Paolo Giordano, “the situation” is different than it was even yesterday. Some understanding of how we’ve gotten here is key to enduring and surviving this pandemic, and “How Contagion Works” helps.

It also helps that you don’t need a Ph.D. to understand what’s inside this skinny book. Filled with examples and stories, the science inside is broken down in steps that are graspable for anyone with even the slightest grasp of this virus. Giordano also addresses the myths and rumors of COVID-19, and he’s not afraid to upset his readers with truth.

That means that there may be parts of this book that you might not like. There are also parts that’ll give you hope and blow your mind, too, and since well-informed is well-armed, read it. “How Contagion Works” is a book to lock down.

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WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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