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Jewish World Review May 2, 2003 / 30 Nissan, 5763

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Are you sufficiently terrified?


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Are you sufficiently terrified?

Is your Michael Jackson autograph model surgical mask on securely?

If you have not yet been driven by the hysteria over SARS to cancel all contact with humans who live outside your native ZIP code, it's certainly not the media's fault.

Every major newsmagazine has a SARS cover with a woman in a surgical mask. Time's piece is as grim and apocalyptic as a '50s sci-fi movie, while Newsweek stipulates that the SARS microbe is "a formidable enemy -- medically, economically, psychologically and politically."

Time and Newsweek agree: SARS is gonna get us. Our fab health care system won't save us. And there's no telling how much worse it's going to get. And, oh yeah, scientists don't know yet what causes SARS, how to cure it or why some people die from it and others don't.

Buried somewhere in its cleverly wrapped package of sensationalism, and before noting that SARS' spread might have peaked in March, Newsweek pauses for a sentence and asks, sensibly, whether the SARS panic might be a result of media hysteria.

Nah. Those 43 percent of Americans the Gallup poll says are now worried about SARS are just natural worrywarts.

In "How Progress Makes Us Sick," Newsweek blames the progress and technology that make our lives more comfortable for also spawning SARS-like bugs and helping them spread around our shrinking planet.

Based on the media attention, you'd think SARS had killed 400,000 earthlings by now, not 400. You'd think the death rate of SARS-catchers was 60 percent, not 6 percent. And you'd think everyone was equally at risk of dying from SARS.

Deep in its "How Progress Makes Us Sick," Newsweek also tells us, casually, that, oh yeah, SARS isn't a "doomsday" virus, because it actually doesn't infect people that fast or easily.

Not like the great pandemic flu viruses of old. Not like the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-1919, for instance, which killed 20 million in 18 months. Imagine how Geraldo, Dan and Paula would have covered that baby.

If you want truly scary scientific news, and if you happened to have minored in astrophysics at Slippery Rock, try reading "Parallel Universes," the cover story of Scientific American.

It's too deep to summarize. But basically, mainstream physicists not on LSD have come to conclude that space is infinite and that, therefore, there are an infinite number of other universes out there identical to ours.

Max Tegmark's article is beyond 99.9 percent of regular humans, but even a naked Dixie Chick could understand what he says are today's simple, popular cosmological truths:

"In infinite space, even the most unlikely events must take place somewhere. There are infinitely many other inhabited planets, including not just one but infinitely many that have people with the same appearance, name and memories as you, who play out every possible permutation of your life choices."

In other words, Elvis is alive. An infinite number of infinitely variable Elvises, many of whom are still talented and skinny. The catch is, the closest one is 10 to the 10 to the 1028 meters from here, and there's no direct bus service.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald