Jewish World Review August 14, 2002 / 6 Elul, 5762
in the human heart
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | PAXTON, Neb. The answers we are looking for cannot be found in scientific journals, or in chronicles of news analysis and opinion. The answers we are looking for -- the answers we need -- can be found in the human heart.
What brings this to mind is the news this summer that scientific researchers in New York have been able to construct a live and lethal polio virus from chemicals and genetic materials available over the Internet.
The researchers--affiliated with the State University of New York at Stony Brook--were doing their work with funds provided by the U.S. Department of Defense. With the threat of bioterrorism so much a part of life these days, the Defense Department funded the virus-making project in an effort to learn how to thwart such attacks. "Know your enemy" seems to be the operative theory--if we find out what kind of dark possibilities can be brewed up in a laboratory, then we can get started on devising ways to combat it.
The announcement of the man-made polio virus in New York immediately stirred controversy. Why was the government spending our money to encourage scientists to create something so potentially deadly and devastating? And -- perhaps more to the point -- why were we publicizing how easy it is to do such a thing? In a world already on edge, why were we sending out word that it is relatively simple to find the menu for a catastrophic virus right on your computer screen -- why were we giving the world a roadmap for destruction and incalculable pain?
That is where the journals of analysis and opinion, and the scientific publications, come in. The debate over the rightness or wrongness of creating the polio virus from scratch is being debated in those places, and voices are being heard from both sides.
But the human heart is where the answer is. It takes a certain kind of scientific genius to go into a lab and cook up a virus that can potentially slaughter millions of people. The human heart can lead us in a different direction.
Scientific genius? The polio virus?
There are very few people who have walked this Earth who are deserving of the much-overused word "hero." One of the great and humbling honors of my life is that I was able to get to know two such people, at least a little bit. Both are gone now.
Dr. Jonas Salk, the research scientist who developed the first polio vaccine, and Dr. Albert Sabin, who discovered an oral polio vaccine that would eventually supplant the Salk injectable vaccine, did their work in a world that, in a different way, was as terrorized as is our world of 2002. The terror was elemental and constant: In 1952, polio was an epidemic climbing out of control, paralyzing 21,000 people a year, mostly children, killing 3,100. In hospital wards across the U.S., boys and girls were locked inside of iron lungs, machines that breathed for them because they could not breathe on their own. Panic was taking over -- no one seemed to know what to do.
Then came Salk and Sabin. They saved the world, that's all; they saw a crippling disease for which there seemed to be no answer, and they determined that they would find the answer. Men of transcendent brilliance, they used their genius to accomplish what at the time seemed all but impossible: to end the fear. To eradicate the disease. To tell the parents of the world: You can sleep soundly at night now. Your children will be free from polio.
There is genius and there is genius. There is the so-called genius to creatively destroy -- newspaper stories are always calling the people behind ghastly crimes "masterminds" -- and then there is real genius. Such genius doesn't come only from the mind -- it lives in the heart. And it never goes away. Dr. Sabin, in his final years, told me: "If I can do something further for humanity before the end comes, then that is what I want to do."
Mankind will always come up with new ways to cause anguish. But that is not the true story of mankind -- that is not the glory. After Jonas Salk had developed the polio vaccine, and the news was racing across a thrilled and grateful planet, the journalist Edward R. Murrow asked Dr. Salk: "Who owns the patent on this vaccine?"
Dr. Salk replied: "Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?"
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