M66, An unusual galaxy

Penicillin: Back in 1928 a doctor named Alexander Fleming, studying a particular bacteria (Staphylococcus) stumbled accidentally upon penicillin. He was growing this bacteria in a Petri dish, which he left sitting out when he went on a vacation. He returned to find that his bacteria had been contaminated by a mold, and that mold was messing up his experiment with his bacteria, by preventing the bacteria from growing. Legend has it that this mold had drifted into his laboratory because he left a window open, and lived over a bakery, from where some spores growing on moldy bread had wafted into his room. That’s how humans discovered what is the best and nearly only weapon in our arsenal to fight infection and many diseases. 

Smallpox was perhaps the most feared disease that has ever afflicted humanity. If you caught it, the outcome was either death or terrible scarring on your face and body. It’s estimated 80% of children who caught it died, and up to 60% of adults. It is the disease most responsible for wiping out the native populations of the Americas. In the century prior to the discovery of a vaccine, the estimate is that half a billion people died of smallpox. It also often caused blindness for any one ‘lucky’ enough to recover. 

And how was the vaccine for smallpox ‘invented’? Doctor Edward Jenner, who developed a smallpox vaccine in 1796, certainly deserves a lot of the credit. But the lucky part for humanity is that there just happened to be a very similar disease, cowpox, which afflicted mainly milkmaids, who caught it from cows. Dr. Jenner noted that these milkmaids who had contracted cowpox often did not catch smallpox, and if they did, it was far less lethal. He then used the cowpox virus to develop a vaccine for smallpox, which was a lot more popular with the public than using actual smallpox germs. The vaccination programs that followed, and grew over the centuries, eventually resulted in smallpox being completely eradicated. This still stands as one of mankind's greatest achievements., perhaps even our greatest achievement.

But of course, us being humans, there remains one huge caveat. Live smallpox viruses still exist in two locations, locked away forever under hopefully incredibly tight security. Live smallpox germs (the variola virus) exist in Russia's State Research Center of Virology, located in the city of Koltsovo in Siberia, and at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, here in the United States. Let’s hope they never escape, through negligence, an accident, or terrorism, because no one alive today is vaccinated. Smallpox would rip through the population of the world like wildfire, A smallpox epidemic would make Covid-19 seem like a popsicle headache. 

Let’s hope our luck continues to hold.

A few other odd but extremely lucky happenstances:

 Einstein and Oppenheimer

Both Albert Einstein, perhaps the greatest physicist of all time, and Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, were both German Jews and hence had to flee Nazi Germany and immigrate to the United States (along with many other scientists). Had this not been the case, World War II would probably have ended with the Nazis ruling the world, since they were very close to developing the atomic bomb themselves.

Alan Mathison Turing and Marian Rejewski 

Perhaps just as amazing is that a Jewish and a Polish mathematicians (Alan Mathison Turing, and Marian Rejewski respectively), from cultures/races considered inferior by the Nazis, were instrumental in cracking the supposedly unbreakable “enigma” codes that Hitler and other German officers relied on completely to communicate war plans. The importance of this can’t be overstated….The Germans thought their codes were unbreakable, but the accomplishments of these two men , working (of course) in conjunction with many others, broke the code. This allowed the allies to know immediately exactly what the German war machine was doing next. Both men, due to their backgrounds, had to flee to Britain from Poland and Germany, and from there they did as much as anyone to defeat the Nazis, who came close to conquering the world. 

It’s very odd, when you think about it. Six brilliant, inspired, or “something else” men, and a few random accidents, have radically changed the course of human history. It does make you wonder a bit. 

An interesting article on Turing and Rejewski