The Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris has survived Louis XIV-style redecorating, the French Revolution, Napoleon and 19th-century remodeling.
I’m pretty sure it will survive repair and reconstruction, following the April 16, 2021, fire.
Notre-Dame de Paris is Burning
(From Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
Somewhere between 6:50 p.m., Paris time, and 7:18 p.m., April 15, 2019, something caught fire under the roof of Notre-Dame de Paris.
That in turn set of an alarm at 7:20. Give or take a few minutes.
Timelines I’ve seen for the 2019 Notre-Dame fire don’t quite line up.
Not surprising, under the circumstances. Dealing with a fire would have made keeping detailed records a low priority.
I’m getting most of my numbers from Reuters and BBC News articles, and some from a Wikipedia page.1
Okay. Back to ‘what happened and when.’
Folks who were working at Notre-Dame noticed the alarm. Then someone went up to see what was happening.
That was basically a good idea. But the person went up to the attic of the cathedral’s sacristy, which wasn’t burning.
Happily, the folks on site remembered Notre-Dame’s main attic. Then, a quarter-hour later, they’d climbed the three hundred-odd steps up to the attic.
Which, by 7:43, was merrily ablaze.
After what I’d imagine was a brisk trip back down the steps, at 7:51, firefighters were called. They arrived within 10 minutes.
After the Fire: Uncertainty and Some Good News
(From Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
The cathedral’s spire collapsed at 7:50. Or 7:53. Firefighters began focusing on saving the towers around 8:30.
By 9:45, they’d brought the fire under control. Later, some 15 hours after it had started, the fire was out.
The next day, April 16, a Parisian public prosecutor said that the fire had been an accident: not arson. But he put 50 folks to work, looking into what had started the blaze.
Years later, we’re still not sure what started the Notre-Dame fire. Maybe an electrical short, maybe someone’s cigarette: someone even suggested that a computer glitch was behind the blaze.
But not arson, which may be true. Construction and renovation sites catch fire with distressing regularity.
Whatever caused it, the 2019 Notre-Dame fire wasn’t all bad news.
It hadn’t killed anyone.
And, although we lost part of Notre-Dame’s Crown of Thorns, along with relics of two saints; statues that had been on the cathedral’s spire had been removed before the fire and Notre-Dame’s rose windows survived.
So did the spire’s copper rooster / weather vane: which fell, dented but undaunted, and was found on the day after the fire.
Another bit of good news is how fast folks began supporting after-fire repairs.2
Ownership and Treasures
(From AFP/Getty, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
I’m guessing that Notre-Dame’s being part of the “Paris, Banks of the Seine” UNESCO World Heritage site made pledging support for rebuilding easier.
So, again my guess, was the cathedral being property of the French government.
Up until the French Revolution, the Paris archbishop — as agent of the Catholic Church — owned the cathedral. Napoleon let the Church conduct religious services there, but didn’t transfer ownership.
Or the cathedral’s been state property since 1905: it depends, apparently, on who’s telling the story. And which aspect of the French state’s ownership is in focus.
At any rate, besides being a house of worship, Notre-Dame de Paris is recognized as one of humanity’s cultural treasures.3 Can’t say that I’d argue with that.
(From AFP/Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(Notre-Dame de Paris, looking up to where the spire used to be. (April 17, 2019))
As I see it, zero fatalities is the best news coming from the 2019 Notre-Dame fire.
But I’m also glad that while firefighters were upstairs, dealing with attic flambé, other folks had organized a sort of bucket brigade, and were evacuating art and relics. Which brings me to why they thought a shirt that hasn’t been worn since the 1200s was worth saving.
The shirt of Saint Louis and Notre-Dame’s Crown of Thorns are relics: things associated with a Saint and/or Jesus that many Catholics venerate. That’s venerate, not worship, and that’s almost another topic.
At any rate, the shirt had been worn by Louis IX of France. As such, it’s a second-class relic: something routinely worn or used by a Saint.
The Crown of Thorns is, as far as we know, headgear that Roman soldiers jammed on our Lord’s head shortly before his execution. Documentation for its authenticity goes back to a bit after 409 AD.4
That four-century gap in the paper trail bothers me, but not very much.
History and Priorities
The Roman government viewed Christianity as a subversive movement until 313, and by that time the Empire was crumbling.
Three centuries later, folks like Saint Isidore of Seville were scrambling to preserve the ancient world’s knowledge.
I suspect that scholars like Saint Isidore focused more on scholarly records than on certifying relics like the Crown of Thorns because, in their day, philosophical treatises seemed more likely to be forgotten.
At any rate, veneration of relics can be an important part of being Catholic. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1674)
But it’s not a big part of my daily and weekly routines. Maybe because I grew up as a Protestant, becoming Catholic as an adult; or maybe not.
Finally, about relics: they’ve got a dubious reputation in my culture. I strongly suspect that’s because hucksters and European politics played hob with a legitimate religious practice.5 And that’s another topic, for another time.
A New Cathedral Building in Paris – – –
(From “Paris à travers les Ages”/”Notre Dame de Paris,” via Gutenberg.org, used w/o permission.)
(Notre-Dame de Paris under construction during the 13th century.)
There’s been a cathedral in Paris since the fourth century: Saint Étienne’s. Or maybe the fifth. Documentation for that time and place is sketchy, mostly because folks were adjusting to a world without the Roman Empire.
Time passed. The folks in charge remodeled Saint Étienne’s along Merovingian, Carolingian, and Romanesque lines.
Then, in 1163, the bishop of Paris signed off on plans to replace Saint Étienne’s with a new building.
I suppose assigning 1270 as a completion date for Notre-Dame de Paris makes sense. That’s when architect Pierre de Montreuil finished work on the south transept and rose window.
But the building’s gone through considerable change since then. The south rose window, for example, was reconstructed in the 18th century and replaced in the 19th.6
– – – And Two Cults
(From Bibliothèque nationale de France, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Dancing girls and reason personified: Notre-Dame, Paris, during the French Revolution)
The French monarchy’s state religion was Catholicism.
Other European monarchies had their own state religions, often some version of Protestantism.
By 1789, that had inspired centuries of religion-themed propaganda and appalling body counts.
Which I figure helps explain why assorted factions in the French Revolution agreed that the Catholic Church had to go.
That left a religion-shaped hole in French culture: which, in 1793, was filled by the Cult of Reason and then Cult of the Supreme Being. Both of which used Notre-Dame de Paris for their events.
I’ll give folks running the Cult of Reason credit. Dancing girls and a personable young stand-in for the goddess Reason sounds like an 18th century toga party.
Then Napoleon started sorting out the mess left by revolutionaries and other enthusiasts. In 1871 folks in the Paris Commune tried torching Notre-Dame de Paris, unsuccessfully.7
Faith, Landmarks and Me
(From REUTERS/Benoit Tessier, used w/o permission.)
(Reconstruction resumes: Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral’s roof. (April 15, 2021))
“Work to shore up the Notre-Dame de Paris has been finished, allowing restoration to start at the cathedral two years after a fire destroyed the attic and sent its spire crashing through the vaults below, officials said on Saturday.
“Soon after the April 2019 blaze, President Emmanuel Macron said the cathedral – which dates back to the 12th century – would be rebuilt and later promised to get it reopened to worshippers by 2024, when France hosts the Olympic Games….”
Although I’m glad to see that Notre-Dame de Paris survived the 2019 fire, and will be ready for use by 2024; I’d be happier if the Catholic Church owned the building.
But my preferences won’t change history, or the current French government’s policies.
Maybe getting Notre-Dame ready in time for the 2024 Olympics feels too ‘worldly.’
On the other hand, we wouldn’t have magnificent buildings like Notre-Dame de Paris if Medieval civic leaders didn’t think their regions would benefit from having a justifiably-famous landmark.8
I can hardly blame 21st century civic leaders from showing the same good sense.
As for whether Notre-Dame’s survival after the French Revolution and 2019 fire is “miraculous” or not? I don’t know. Much depends on how I define “miraculous.”
I do, however, think that the Catholic Church’s survival — the Church, not the places where we worship — that our still being here is wildly improbable.
Or maybe not so much, since for two millennia we’ve been saying that we’re getting help. (Catechism, 687-741, 1287, 2623)
Nothing in this universe lasts forever, including stars.
Massive stars live fast and die young: exploding as supernovae.
One of these, AT2016jka, nicknamed “Requiem,” was first spotted in 2016. It showed up again in 2019.
Scientists figure they’ll get another look in 2037, give or take a few years
But the supernova only exploded once. We’re getting reruns of the event, thanks to gravitational lensing. I’ll be taking about stars, including supernovae, gravitational lensing, and whatever else comes to mind.
Astronomers use designations like AT2016jka and MRG-M0138 for reasons I’ll discuss in “A Star by Any Other Name.”
“…Any Other Name” is currently on my back burner. The current pandemic distracted me, so I’ve got several works-in-progress. And that’s another topic.
Now, about stars, names and alphanumeric gibberish. Basically, we can see maybe 10,000 stars. That’s under ideal conditions. And, since folks occasionally discuss stars, they need ways to let other astronomers know which one they’re talking about.
We’ve named the brighter ones. Several times. Sirius, for example, has been called Aschere, Canicula, Al Shira, Mrgavyadha and Lubdhaka.
Now multiply the hassle of deciding whether everyone should call it Aschere, Al Shira or Lubdhaka by 10,000.1
Bottom line? Designations like AT2016jka make discussing stars easier. And slightly less likely to trigger arguments over which nation’s, culture’s, or language’s name is the “right” one. Even so, astronomers still use nicknames like “requiem.”
Common Origin, Different Results
(From NASA, used w/o permission.)
(Stellar evolution, from brown dwarfs to blue supergiants.)
All stars are not created equal, although they all begin the same way.
The star we call the Sun, for example, began as part of a stellar nursery: a molecular cloud that started collapsing and forming stars.
Our Sun and all its stellar siblings have been on their own for 4,600,000,000 years now. Astronomers think maybe HD 162826 and HD 186302 come from the same cloud, but that’s debatable: and debated.
At any rate, our sun is still turning hydrogen into helium and energy; and will continue doing so for billions of years.
Then, when it runs short on hydrogen, it will pulse a few times, balloon outward until its surface is about where Earth’s orbit is now, and then collapse.
Arcturus is a solar-mass star that’s at this stage in its life.
Six billion years from now, our star will be a white dwarf.
A star with considerably less mass than ours won’t become nearly as hot or bright: but will last a whole lot longer.2
The most massive stars become blue supergiants, burn through their hydrogen in a few million years and then collapse: compressing and heating their core to a point where heavier elements fuse, releasing energy and a whacking great quantity of neutrinos.
Stars like Betelgeuse aren’t quite as massive, but will eventually explode in about the same way.
I gather that a fair number of scientists expect Antares and Betelgeuse to become a supernovae soon.
Soon on a cosmic scale, that is: maybe 10,000 years from now for Antares and 100,000 years for Betelgeuse. Roughly. We’d have to know a great deal more about those stars and how exactly how supernovae work to get more exact forecasts.
Scientists have pegged Antares, Betelgeuse and four other nearby stars as supernovae that haven’t exploded yet. Nearby, again, on a cosmic scale.
The closest, IK Pegasi, is about 154 light-years out, in the general direction of Rotanev: a star almost nobody has heard of.
IK Pegasi isn’t a super-massive star. It’s two stars, one of them a white dwarf, and that brings me to supernovae types I, II, III, IV, and V. Light from each type looks different, depending on which parts of the spectrum are brightest and which elements are there.
Very massive stars become supernovae, but not all supernovae start as supermassive stars.
For example, if a mid-size star that’s running out of hydrogen balloons out far enough to start leaking onto a white dwarf companion, the white dwarf may get overloaded. Then it will collapse, triggering carbon fusion, which sets off fusion of heavier elements.
As with so much else in this universe, it’s complicated. And it’s only in the last century that scientists realized that supernovae weren’t the same as novae, and started figuring out how they work.3
Light and Gravity
(From Krishnavedala, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(How gravitational lensing works: massive object “b” bends light, forming two images.)
Light from the Requiem supernova reached Earth in 2016, and again in 2019. We’re expecting another Requiem rerun in 2037, give or take a few years.
If light always travels at the same speed, then how come we’re getting Requiem reruns?
Short answer, the supernova’s light has been taking different paths on its way here, because a very massive galaxy cluster is in the way.
Einstein’s general theory of relativity said that gravity fields should bend light. So does classical physics, but only about half as much.
All that was theoretical until 1979, when scientists said Twin Quasar SBS 0957+561 was actually two images of the same quasar: and backed the claim up with data and analysis.4
Supernova Requiem: More Data, Greater Precision
(From Joseph DePasquale (STScI), via NASA, used w/o permission.)
(“Requiem” supernova images: 2016 and 2019.
(Near-infrared images from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera.))
“…The light that Hubble captured from the cluster, MACS J0138.0-2155, took about four billion years to reach Earth. The light from Supernova Requiem needed an estimated 10 billion years for its journey, based on the distance of its host galaxy….
“…The lensed supernova images were discovered in 2019 by Gabe Brammer…. Brammer spotted the mirrored supernova images while analyzing distant galaxies magnified by massive foreground galaxy clusters as part of an ongoing Hubble program called REsolved QUIEscent Magnified Galaxies (REQUIEM).
“He was comparing new REQUIEM data from 2019 with archival images taken in 2016 from a different Hubble science program. A tiny red object in the 2016 data caught his eye, which he initially thought was a far-flung galaxy. But it had disappeared in the 2019 images….
“…This time-delay method is valuable because it’s a more direct way of measuring the universe’s expansion rate, Rodney explained. ‘These long time delays are particularly valuable because you can get a good, precise measurement of that time delay if you are just patient and wait years, in this case more than a decade, for the final image to return … The real value in the future will be using a larger sample of these to improve the precision.’…”
A key phrase for me in this Goddard Space Flight Center/NASA article is “…larger sample…to improve the precision….”
Knowledge, Wisdom and Living Amidst Greatness and Beauty
A great deal of what we know about about this universe — its size, age and expansion rate — comes from data that’s been collected during my lifetime. Much of it from analysis of observations made at the edge of what our instruments can detect.
Very little of our new knowledge matches, in a literal and metaphor-free way, to the Old Testament’s mythic images.
I could let that bother me, or decide that — since Abraham, Moses and all lived before the days of space telescopes — everything we’ve learned since 1650 is Satanic.5
Or that religion in general and Christianity in particular is unscientific: and therefore stupid and old-fashioned.
I could, but I won’t. And, since I’m a Catholic, ignoring this wonder-packed cosmos and what we’re learning about it isn’t required.
“Now if out of joy in their beauty they thought them gods,
let them know how far more excellent is the Lord than these;
for the original source of beauty fashioned them.
“Or if they were struck by their might and energy,
let them realize from these things how much more powerful is the one who made them.
“For from the greatness and the beauty of created things
their original author, by analogy, is seen.
I’ve talked about that, and why I don’t see a point in denouncing weather forecasts, before. Often:
These days, September 11th is mostly remembered as the date of the 9/11 attacks.
But that’s not the only ‘on this day in history’ incident from my country’s history.
The Halve Maen, for example, a Dutch East India Company vlieboot, sailed into what we call Upper New York Bay 412 years ago today.
A log entry noted that locals called an island there “Manna-hata” — or maybe that was the name for part of the island, or a hickory grove on the island’s southern tip.
We’re pretty sure that what the ship’s officer heard was Munsee “manaháhtaan,” meaning something like “place for gathering the wood to make bows. Or maybe it was “manhattoe.”
Anyway, I think “Manna-hatta” isn’t a bad effort for someone recording a word from an unfamiliar language. Although it would have been nice if the ship’s officer had recorded more about Munsee and Algonquin languages in general. And that’s another topic.
More immigrants arrived over the next few centuries.
Their cultural heritage included engaging in trade. And since “Manna-hatta” was on an excellent harbor, their settlement grew. A lot.1
Just Another Tuesday Morning
(FromIdawriter, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
Then, 392 years after the “Manna-hatta” log entry, folks in Manhattan were starting another weekday morning.
It was Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
Twenty years ago today.
At 8:46 Eastern Daylight Time, someone flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center’s North Tower.
Everyone on Flight 11, along with folks on floors 93 through 99, died.
About 16 minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower.
After that, American Airlines Flight 77 flew into the Pentagon and United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field southeast of Pittsburgh.
At 9:59, the South Tower collapsed.
The North Tower fell at 10:28.
Death, Dust and Debris
(From U.S. Navy, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Jim Watson’s photo of Word Trade Center rubble and fires. (September 14, 2001))
By then, folks around the world had begun watching more-or-less frantic reporters trying to make sense of smoke, sirens, fleeing folks and dust. Lots of dust.
But what may have gotten the most attention after 10:28 was the burning scrapheap that had been the the World Trade Center’s twin towers.
By midday, folks in lower Manhattan and Arlington had started putting out fires and were picking through the rubble, looking for identifiable pieces of people and property.2
Lord High Muckamucks and — Finally — a Medal
(From United States Federal Bureau of Investigation, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
I wasn’t taking notes at the time, so I can’t remember who insisted that two airliners flying into two of New York City’s tallest buildings was just an accident. Or the exact words.
Important people making daft statements is probably par for the course in situations like the 9/11 attacks. City and state lord high muckamucks are human, too. I’ll take the hysteria as evidence that they knew how bad it could be.
The two towers housed 430 companies employing 35,000 people. Thankfully, many were below the floors occupied by Marsh & McLennan Companies, Fuji Bank and smaller outfits.
I’m not sure when someone with both an impressive title and common sense acknowledged that my country was under attack. I figure it was before 9:45 a.m., when America’s air space started getting cleared.
At 9:57 a.m., the passengers and crew on United Airlines Flight 93 began fighting the four terrorists who’d hijacked their airliner.
Then, at 10:03 a.m., Flight 93 dove into a field, killing everyone on board.
The passengers and crew of Flight 93 were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Posthumously, of course. After only eight years of debate.3
It’s nice to know America’s Congress can get something right now and again.
Life, Death and Labels
(From U.S. Navy, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Fire engine at World Trade Center site in New York City. (September 16, 2001))
Although I’d imagine very few folks seriously believed that four airliners had ‘just happened’ to fly into buildings and a field, it took time to learn who the terrorists were.
And even more time to isolate DNA from scraps found in New York City, Arlington and that field, sort through testimony and surviving records, and come up with a death toll.
A reasonable estimate says that 2,996 folks were killed that day, including 19 terrorists who had committed the slaughter. That number will almost certainly change, since we’re still analyzing DNA from pieces of more than 1,100 unidentified individuals.
I’ve used the conventional “terrorist” label for the 19 people who killed thousands. I suppose they might have called themselves martyrs or heroes in a holy war.
I gather that the chap who inspired the September 11 attacks said America as guilty of attacks, aggression and atrocities against Muslims.4
I think words, labels included, matter. But that mass murder is mass murder, no matter what the killers call themselves.
I also think that human life matters. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2258-2262)
And, although I don’t always approve of what my country’s government does: I don’t think mass murder is a reasonable method for expressing disapproval.
I’m an American and a Christian.
If one set of stereotypes applied, then I’d have been spending the last two decades ranting about Islam and striving to have all American Muslims deported.
But I’m a Catholic. So, applying other stereotypes, I’d have been plotting against real Americans all this time.
Or, adopting another stereotype, one that’s been fashionable much of my life, I could have displayed sophistication by declaring ‘religion kills people.’
But I’m an American, a Christian and a Catholic. So I’ll take a quick look at an imaginative alternate history.
Islam is a Catholic Plot?!
(From Chick Publications, used w/o permission.)
I’ll give Jack Chick and the folks carrying on his work at Chick Publications credit for evangelical zeal.
Accuracy, not so much.
But I’ll grant that Chick tracts tell compelling tales and proclaim clear messages.
One of those messages, part of one at any rate, is that Islam is a Catholic plot. Or, perhaps more accurately, that both are a Satanic plot.
Maybe someone who believes the message(s) in literature like “Mamma’s Girls” — that “The Whore” and Islam are in cahoots with Satan — can be convinced otherwise.
However, making the effort strikes me as an exercise in futility.
But then, I’ve rubbed elbows with folks who hold similar beliefs; and don’t enjoy metaphorically slamming my head into a brick wall.
I was going somewhere with this. Let’s see. Death, destruction, 9/11 and DNA. Stereotypes and religion. Comic books and an alternate history.
There was a time when I was in online groups which included Muslims. I probably still am, but who has which faith hasn’t been as much of an issue lately.
They were self-identified Muslims, at any rate. I can no more peer into the mind of someone online than I can face-to-face, and that’s yet another topic.
One of the points my Muslim fellow-members made was the one Ali Moeen discussed in “Yeh Hum Naheen/This Is Not Us!”5
Okay, but that doesn’t change religion’s connection with the September 11 carnage.
(Not Just) the Bible and Me
Mass murderers may have apparently-religious motives. But just as not all Christians are in the Ku Klux Klan, not all Muslims are terrorists.
And I’m quite sure that not all feel that having different beliefs deserves death.
I’m inclined to believe folks like Ali Moeen, since I’m a Catholic: and know that my faith isn’t even close to fitting Chick Publications’ “The Death Cookie” profile.
If some of my fellow-citizens are profoundly wrong about my faith, then I figure maybe they’re not 100% accurate about what other folks believe.
There’s the whole ‘respect’ thing too, but before I get to that: about the “Mama’s Girls” claim regarding Sacred Scripture and rules for Catholics.
Half of what the”religious advisor” in that comic said was almost right.
Since I’m a Catholic, I can’t read Revelation 13:2 — and decide that, Biblically speaking, its true meaning is that zoos are Satanic. Or that Doomsday is on the 132nd day of next year.
But I can read the Bible. Make that I must read the Bible.
One of my faith’s happier obligations is frequent reading and study of Sacred Scripture. (Catechism, 101-133)
And, since I’m also supposed to pay attention to wisdom accumulated over the last few millennia, I can’t start my own ‘Bible Prophecy End Times Fire Insurance’ business. (Catechism, 75-95, 2033, 2121)
Which is fine by me.
Now, about the rabidly religious and respect. But mostly respect.
Truth and Love
(From Banford Clarke, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
Because I’m a Catholic, I must both seek truth and respect “…different religions which frequently ‘reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men.’…” (Catechism, 2104)
That respect includes valuing religious freedom. Everyone’s religious freedom. (Catechism, 2104-2109)
But I’m also none too happy about the property damage: which included public and private art valued at an estimated $110,000,000. I’m not exactly ecstatic that my native culture measures art in terms of currency, and I’m wandering off-topic again.
The art thing isn’t all bad news. Some pieces, like “The Sphere” weren’t destroyed. Weren’t completely destroyed, at any rate.
And, although I’d vastly prefer that crackpots would take a cognitive leap back into reality: conspiracy theories happen. Like ‘airplanes didn’t make the towers fall because they couldn’t, that’s why.’
My favorite, in terms of weirdness, is one person’s insistence that America’s vice president ordered the Pentagon part of the attacks. I am not making that up.
The Sphere — AKA Sphere at Plaza Fountain, WTC Sphere and Koenig Sphere — is a whacking great bronze sculpture. Is, present tense.
It’s the only World Trade Center artwork recovered more-or-less intact. And, after standing in New York City’s Battery Park for a few years, it’s back at the new World Trade Center.
I think the powers that be had the right idea, dusting it off but not repairing damage sustained during the attack.6
A Special Tree
(From PumpkinSky, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(The “Survivor Tree,” alive and well and back at the World Trade Center. (July 12, 2010))
Finally, there’s the Survivor Tree: a callery pear tree pulled from the World Trade Center’s rubble in October 2001.
It was eight feet tall at the time; mostly burned, but with one living branch.
New York City Department of Parks and Recreation transferred it to a nursery in the Bronx for recovery. Folks didn’t expect it to survive; but when it, did they planted it in the Bronx. Then a storm blew it down, and the Bronx nursery planted it again. And it kept on not dying.
The last I heard, the Survivor Tree is back at the World Trade Center, has several namesakes, and provides photo ops for visitors.7
Oh, yes: we rebuilt the World Trade Center, and that’s — what else? — still another topic.
As for what I think the 9/11 attacks “mean;” I talked about that and free will, in “Health and Surfside Condo Collapse: Siloam Scenarios” and “Joy and Shadow, Free Will and Something Silly:”
(From Albrecht Dürer, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(From Dürer’s ‘The Revelation of St John: 12’ woodcut. (ca. 1497))
Oddly enough, I’ve yet to see a pandemic-themed End Times Bible Prophecy get traction. Can’t say that I’m disappointed, but won’t wail in despair if some doomsayer cashes in on grassroots fears. Or tries to.
About that, a quick Google search yielded a few clickbait headlines and a Journal of Religion and Health article.
The latter, happily, acknowledged that not all Christians are crackpot fundamentalists. What really jumped out at me, though, was this:
“Unlike religious apocalypticism where the future is determined by divine intervention, in secular apocalypticism natural events such as the current Covid-19 pandemic are the cause of the impending doomsday….”
(“Covid-19 and the Apocalypse: Religious and Secular Perspectives,” Simon Dein, Journal of Religion and Health (October 30, 2020) via US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health)
At any rate, pandemic peril has become routine in news and views:
About that first item: I agree that dismissing or denouncing someone’s death isn’t helpful.
And, although I see the ‘poetic justice’ angle of last weekend’s ‘COVID-19 Smites Anti-Vax Unbelievers‘-themed headlines, I wouldn’t willingly jump on that bandwagon.
Attack of the Mutant Virus!!!
(From Smithsonian Magazine, used w/o permission.)
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has been mutating.
Nothing unusual there.
That’s what viruses do.
I gather that, based on what we know about viruses and SARS-CoV-2, we know it will change: but not how it will change.
Maybe it’ll mellow out, becoming a minor annoyance to a very few folks.
Or the virus may stay as dangerous as it is, but keep changing enough to require updated vaccinations: sort of like my annual flu shot.
On the other hand, maybe SARS-CoV-2 will jump species: infecting America’s tomato patches, corrupting the benevolent berries, unleashing a tidal wave of tomato terror upon this fair nation.
No. I don’t think so. I most very seriously don’t think so. Although that could be the premise for “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes II.”
I strongly suspect that one problem scientists have, trying to predict how SARS-CoV-2 will change, is that the we didn’t know about the virus until around December of 2019. And we’re pretty sure it didn’t exist until a month or two before that.
We’re almost certain SARS-CoV-2 first showed up in or near Wuhan, China. The odds are good that its immediate ancestor was making bats, or some other animal, sick.
Exactly when, where and how the ancestral virus changed into SARS-CoV-2? Scientists don’t know.2
If we lived in an idea world, then the folks running China would have been cooperating with other regional leaders, backtracking the SARS-CoV-2 virus. But, as I keep saying, we don’t live in an ideal world.
COVID-19 Origins: WHO Wants to Know
(From Reuters, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
“Search for Covid’s origins stalled, scientists say”
Victoria Gill, BBC News (August 25, 2021)
“…A team appointed by the World Health Organization to find the cause of the outbreak say the process has stalled.
“And further delay could make crucial studies ‘biologically impossible’.
“In an article in the scientific journal Nature, they call on political and scientific leaders to expedite those studies ‘while there is still time’….”
“Covid: China rejects WHO plan for second phase of virus origin probe”
BBC News (July 23, 2021)
“China has rejected the next stage of a World Health Organization (WHO) plan to investigate the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The WHO wants to audit laboratories in the area where the virus was first identified.
“But Zeng Yixin, deputy health minister, said this showed ‘disrespect for common sense and arrogance toward science’.
“WHO experts said it was very unlikely the virus escaped from a Chinese lab, but the theory has endured….”
I don’t know why China’s decision-makers aren’t cooperating with foreigners, but that won’t keep me from guessing.
Paranoia and Xenophobia in Retrospect
I could be wrong, but the Chinese government’s attitude reminds me of America’s self-appointed guardians, back in the ‘good old days.’
“The Great Flag Flap”
San Bernardino Sun (July 6, 1969) via California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographical Studies and Research; University of California, Riverside.
“…Eventually, some viewers — with — alarm become convinced that a plot to communize the moon was afoot, in furtherance of which an International emblem would be erected there. This view was expressed In a newspaper editorial quoted by Rep. John R. Rarick (D-La.) in support of the Roudebush proposal: ‘There is a persistent rumor … that the spider flag of the United Nations will be planted on the moon by the American astronauts.’…”
I’d better clarify that.
Back in the days of my youth, self-identified ‘real Americans’ seemed convinced that foreigners in general and the United Nations in particular were embroiled in communist plots.
They almost had a point, since some countries were run along communist lines, and were acting against my country’s interests.
“Running Dog” Diplomacy
But what I mostly remember from their rants is their deep and abiding loathing of communism, Catholicism and suchlike foreign threats.
That, and End Times Bible Prophecies based on numerology and Bible trivia.
Which eventually and indirectly led me to become a Catholic, and that’s another topic.
At any rate, I see that “running dog” is still part of China’s diplomatic vocabulary. Likely enough because it resonates with the folks back home.3
“…’Boy, your greatest achievement is to have ruined the friendly relations between China and Canada, and have turned Canada into a running dog of the US. Spendthrift!!!’ pic.twitter.com/qWCfJH4bYb
— Li Yang (@CGChinaLiYang) March 28, 2021…”
(“China calls Canada America’s ‘running dog’ as tension grows,” Shweta Sharma, MSN (March 30, 2021))
Next, an excessively long and technical look at why scientists are running out of time.
SARS-CoV-2, Scientists and China
(From Aly Song/Reuters/Alamy, via Nature, used w/o permission.)
(The World Health Organization, WHO, seeks understanding of SARS-CoV-2’s origins.)
“Origins of SARS-CoV-2: window is closing for key scientific studies”
Marion Koopmans et al., Comment, Nature (August 25, 2021)
“…The possibility of a laboratory origin for the virus’s introduction into the local human population — what has come to be called the lab-leak hypothesis — was not part of the WHO’s original terms of reference for the team….
“…Scientific discussions between the international and Chinese teams during this mission were lively….
“…We found the laboratory origin hypothesis too important to ignore, so brought it into the discussions with our Chinese counterparts. And we included it as one of the hypotheses for SARS-CoV-2 origin in our report….
Before I talk about this, and you read it, still more clarifications.
I do not have an enduring, unthinking faith in WHO, the United Nations General Assembly, America’s Congress, the CDC and BBC News.
But I don’t assume that any or all of them are out to get me.
And I think assuming either that China’s government can do no wrong, or can do nothing but wrong, is silly: at best. The same goes for America’s government, and all the other major players in our current mess.
I do think that learning where the SARS-CoV-2 virus came from is a good idea. Even if what we learn embarrasses someone; or interferes with international negotiations regarding the price of paperclips, peanuts or poultry.
Enough of that. Now — about science, time and foolishness.
(From Wei Liang/China News Service/Getty, via Nature, used w/o permission.)
(Collecting COVID-19 test samples in China’s Shanxi province.)
“…The Chinese team was and still is reluctant to share raw data (for instance, on the 174 cases identified in December 2019), citing concerns over patient confidentiality. … The legal and possible other barriers could not be addressed in the short time frame of our visit. Also, by then, it was clear that the 174 cases were not likely to be the earliest ones, so we considered them less urgent for understanding origins.
“It was therefore agreed that a second phase of studies would address these concerns and review these data….
“…Crucially, the window is rapidly closing on the biological feasibility of conducting the critical trace-back of people and animals inside and outside China. SARS-CoV-2 antibodies wane, so collecting further samples and testing people who might have been exposed before December 2019 will yield diminishing returns. Chinese wildlife farms employ millions of people (14 million, according to a 2016 census) and supplied live mammals to cities across China, including Wuhan. In response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, many of these farms are now closed and the animals have been culled, making any evidence of early coronavirus spillover increasingly difficult to find….”
I’m still willing to accept evidence that “the lab-leak hypothesis” isn’t how the SARS-CoV-2 virus got loose.
But each time Chinese officials keep foreigners from investigating the Wuhan SNAFU, that explanation looks more likely.
I have no idea why China’s powers-that-be seem so determined to look like bureaucrats desperately trying to cover up a world-class blunder.
What a Mess
Maybe they fear that this is the Opium Wars all over again, and that they’re defending their land from foreign influences.
Or maybe they’re simply doing what bureaucrats do: keeping non-bureaucrats from doing their jobs.
I don’t know.
I’m pretty sure, though, that folks in China have had a tough row to hoe, ever since the Qing dynasty meltdown.4 And that’s yet another topic.
Whatever motive or motives Chinese officials have, they may succeed in keeping scientists from learning how and where the COVID-19 pandemic started.
That’s not good news.
Partly because it will likely encourage fans of assorted crackpot ‘it is the fault of the Jews or Muslims or Canadians or Americans’ stories.
And partly because I’m as sure as I can be, that this isn’t the last time we’ll be dealing with a new and occasionally-lethal disease. The more we learn about this one, the better prepared we’ll be for whatever’s next. My opinion.
Recapping, scientists from the World Health Organization have been trying, none too successfully, to pry useful information out of Chinese bureaucrats and scientists.
Business-as-usual delays may succeed in keeping the foreigners from learning where COVID-19 actually started, and how. Ironically, we might have learned that the disease didn’t start in Wuhan and wasn’t connected with a lab there. Or we might not.
More delays may make tracking COVID-19’s origins “biologically impossible.” That’s partly because of the way antibodies in our bodies fade over time.
My view of the COVID-19 origins investigation is that, basically, it’s a mess.
Antibodies and frustration
I’ve forgotten something.
Let’s see, where was I? Covid-19 and pandemic peril in the news, viruses and bureaucrats, scientists and antibodies.
Antibodies are Y-shaped bits of protein with an antigen-binding site at the tip of each branch. The antigen-binding site has a specific paratope that fits one particular epitope on an antigen — it’s complicated, like most of biochemistry.
An antibody ‘tags’ a specific molecule on a pathogen; then either another part of the immune system takes over, or sometimes the antibody simply keeps that part of a virus from working.
Our immune system ‘remembers’ antigens it’s dealt with before. That’s why we have lifetime immunity to some diseases, once we’ve endured and survived. But there’s a sort of expiration date for our immunity to other diseases. Like I said, it’s complicated.5
And, since our immune systems probably don’t have the SARS-CoV-2 on the ‘never forget’ list, collecting data from folks who may or may not have been affected is time-sensitive.
Hence the frustration expressed by WHO scientists.
Statistics, a Little History, and Attitudes
(From COVID Data Tracker, CDC, used w/o permission.)
(Community transmission of COVID-19 in U.S., by county.)
COVID-19 hasn’t killed me, and none of my family has caught the bug.
Embracing the ‘it didn’t happen to me, so it doesn’t exist’ principle — I could join that fractional faction who say the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t real. That strikes me as silly.
Or I could take one look at that “community transmission by county” map and panic. Which also seems silly.
Instead, I’ll have a shot at explaining why I think the COVID-19 pandemic is a serious problem, but isn’t humanity’s worst crisis ever.
Life and Health, Death and Percentages
(From COVID Data Tracker, CDC, used w/o permission.)
For starters, COVID-19 isn’t killing Americans nearly as fast as it was earlier this year.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that COVID-19 has killed upwards of 600,000 of us so far.
That, and the four-million-plus folks this disease has killed to date, is a lot of dead people.
But I’m one of more than 332,000,000 Americans,6 and I’m still alive. So I could shrug off losing less than one percent of my country’s population as acceptable loss.
I could, but I won’t.
That’s because I think human life is precious, sacred. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2258, 2260)
Life and health are “precious gifts” from God. Getting and staying healthy is a good idea. Within reason. (Catechism, 1506-1510, 2279, 2288-2289, 2292)
I’ve said that before, a lot. You’ll find links to ‘more of the same’ near the end of this post.
Meanwhile, in Minnesota
(From Minnesota COVID-19 Situation Update, used w/o permission.)
(COVID-19 Minnesota statistics, from Minnesota Department of Health.)
Minnesotans are still dying from COVID-19, but nowhere near as many as in January.
Good news, right? But some of us are still dying. Including someone in my county, within the last week:
I don’t know who “Stearns County resident” is, so I could try trivializing the death.
That doesn’t strike me as reasonable. Neither does panicking. So I’ll try making sense.
Life is precious, but sooner or later we die: from accident, disease, old age, whatever.
Someone who dies from COVID-19 isn’t either more or less dead than an accident victim, but that’s cold comfort for that person’s friends and family.
Since I think human life matters, and since COVID-19 is killing a measurable fraction of my neighbors, I think the COVID-19 pandemic is a serious problem.
But it’s nowhere near the worst disease-related problem we’ve had.
(From Hans Holbein, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(From Hans Holbein’s “Dance of Death:” XXVIII “The Rich Man,” XI “The Queen.”)
Take the Black Death, for example. By 1353 that disease had killed half of Europe: 45% to 60%, actually, depending on who you listen to. Even lowball estimates, though, make it the worst pandemic yet, in terms of body counts.
COVID-19, by comparison, has killed maybe 0.01% of the world’s population. That’s still a lot of deaths, but not even close to the 14th century pandemic’s kill rate.
The two pandemics aren’t entirely different, though.
Both kept and are keeping folks from making and trading stuff: either by killing workers and traders, or encouraging survivors to be careful about moving goods and people.7
Maybe we’re feeling COVID-19 more than the Black Death on an ‘impact-per-death’ score, because we do more international trade now. And that’s yet again another topic.
But we survived the Black Death. I don’t see why we can’t survive the COVID-19 pandemic.
Particularly since we know what causes it, and have vaccines that give a measure of protection from the disease. Considering that viruses of any sort were unknown until a little before 1900, that’s remarkable.
Viruses, a Hasty History
(From National Institutes of Health; Scripps Research, via Almay Stock/MedlinePlus, used w/o permission.)
(Scripps Research’s diagram of a SARS-CoV-2 virus. (July 29, 2021))
Maybe someday I’ll devote most or all of my weekly article/essay/post to what we’re learning about viruses, but today I’ll keep it short and sketchy.
Louis Pasteur literally couldn’t see what caused rabies. He figured the ‘rabies bug’ was too small to be visible in microscopes of his day.
In 1884 — don’t bother trying to remember these names and dates, there won’t be a test — Charles Chamberland invented the Chamberland filter. Its pores were smaller than any (known) bacteria.
Chamberland filters let scientists remove (known) bacteria from solutions. In 1876, Adolf Mayer showed that his “Tobacco Mosaic Disease” was infectious: and was either a chemical toxin or a teeny tiny bacterium.
Dmitry Ivanovsky did pretty much the same thing. Martinus Beijerinck followed up on A. Mayer’s research in 1898, and said that the tiny infectious agents were liquid.
Beijerinck’s “contagium vivum fluidum” (soluble living germ) is where we get the word “virus.” Maybe. I’ll need to check into that before I’m sure.
Fast-forward to late 2019. Folks in Wuhan got sick and scientists spotted a new sort of coronavirus. By the end of January, 2020, they’d confirmed that SARS‑CoV‑2 could pass from one human to another.
A year later, scientists had developed something new — mRNA vaccines.
Some folks were setting up production and supply process.8 Others were having conniptions over something new.
We Don’t Know Everything, But We’re Learning
If you think that’s a sketchy overview, wait until you see what I do with SARS-CoV-2 variants.
Very briefly, biological variants are critters that are sort of like every other critter of their species, only not quite.
If you think that sounds vague, you’re right. It is. There isn’t, as far as I can tell, a well-defined and consistent definition for “variant” in that sense.
Some lineages of the SARS-CoV-2 virus are different enough to warrant being called “variants,” and this lot are currently the most worrysome ones:9
Alpha (lineage B.1.1.7)
5.1.1 B.1.1.7 with E484K
Beta (lineage B.1.351)
Gamma (lineage P.1)
Delta (lineage B.1.617.2)
Monikers like “5.1.1 B.1.1.7 with E484K” don’t exactly roll off the tongue, which I figure explains why we see “delta variant” in headlines.
There’s a great deal more to say, but I’m running out of time.
So here are a few none-too-well-organized thoughts:
I’d vastly prefer living in a world where politics, panic and paranoia were less prevalent. But I’m impressed at how much scientists and others have accomplished.
Uncertainty isn’t my favorite condition, but with a disease that almost certainly didn’t exist before late 2019, it’s inevitable.
The good news, as I see it, is that we’re learning. Fast.
I'm a sixty-something married guy with four kids in a small central Minnesota town. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run a business and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters.
This blog's header image is from NASA Photo ID ISS011-E-5487, taken 188 nautical miles, 348 kilometers, above 17.6° N, 2.8° E: available from Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center.
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