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DQ Blog

THE BIG ONE

MAY 1, 2020

So here we are, amid a global pandemic of a disease called COVID-19, caused by a virus known as SARS-CoV-2. It’s terrible, and many people are suffering—suffering the disease, and suffering economic and social hardships related to the shutdowns necessitated by the disease. I’m relatively lucky: self-isolated with my wife, our two dogs, our cat, and our python, and all six of us are accustomed to working from home.

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Many journalists, and some of my friends, have been asking me: “Were you surprised when this began?” I wasn’t surprised. Others have asked: “How does it feel to be prescient?” (My first thought: I'd rather be wrong.") Anyway, I wasn’t prescient; I merely listened carefully to a select group of disease scientists, ten years ago, while I was researching my book Spillover (W.W. Norton, 2012), and I reported their well-informed predictions about the prospects of a “Next Big One,” a punishing global pandemic. What they told me back then, if you assemble their bits of wisdom and foresight into a single consensual summary (as I tried to do, over the course of the book), was this: Yes, there will be a Next Big One. It will be caused by a virus. That virus will be new to humans, coming out of a wild animal. What kind of animal? Very possibly a bat. What kind of virus? Very possibly an influenza virus or a coronavirus. Under what circumstances would the virus get into humans? Some situation of close, disruptive contact between humans and wild animals—such as in or around a wet market in, oh, for instance, China.

In early January of this year I was making plans to depart for Tasmania, Australia’s island state, for three weeks of research on Tasmanian devils and a strange form of contagious cancer that has been killing them wholesale in recent decades. This research was for a book that I’m writing about cancer as an evolutionary phenomenon. As I readied for the trip, I must have missed the earliest emails from ProMED, an infectious-disease reporting system to which I subscribe, about “an unidentified

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October 2, 2018

     The working life of a writer is solitary. You sit alone in a room, hour after hour, day after day, and you create pages. It takes years to write a book (five years, for me, is about the minimum on a complex nonfiction project), and once that book is finished, tangledPile330edited, revised, fact-checked, printed, and published, the extrovert part of the job begins. If you’re lucky, people invite you to talk about what you’ve written. And you do that, because, extrovert or introvert, you want folks to buy the book and read it. Social media and public radio and podcasts are nowadays hugely significant dimensions of book promotion; among the nice things about them is that they don’t require you to leave home. But the book tour in its classic form—get on a plane, go to a series of cities, do interviews in person, speak at a bookstore, sign copies—is still an important element too.

October 2, 2018
     My new book, The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life, has recently been published (August 14, 2018) by Simon & Schuster, and since that date I've been traveling—off and on, but mainly on—to talk about it before a variety of genial and welcoming audiences and interviewers.  Meanwhile the reviews have been abundant and extremely good (generally), the few controversies stirred up have been substantive and worth discussing, and the book has been longlisted (a group of ten candidates) for the National Book Award in Nonfiction.  The Tangled Tree apeared at #12 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller for one week, and after that cup of coffee, it has had two months on the Times list of Science bestsellers.  Simon & Schuster and I are gratified. 

     This week I'll head to Telluride, Colorado, to participate in an exciting new festival of ideas called Original Thinkers, created by the estimable David Holbrooke and his team.  After two lectures and a panel discussion there, I'll fly home to Bozeman for a day, do some laundry, get a haircut, change the water for

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