Author: The Biggest Ideas In The World Are Born From Interdisciplinary Teamwork


When you consider some of the biggest innovations that have changed public health – pasteurization, disease eradication, water purification – you will see behind the scenes a whole network of unsung heroes and heroines, author Steven johnson said. Not just the inventors or scientists who developed the technology, but the visionaries, evangelists, activists, artists, mothers, milkmaids, pilots, philanthropists, philosophers, politicians and many more, who took the good idea and made it happen. .

This collaborative nature of innovation was one of the key messages Johnson delivered during a campus visit on September 22, as a guest of the Milstein Program in Technology and Humanity. His visit was also sponsored by the Department of Science and Technology Studies at the College of Arts and Sciences and Cornell’s Masters of Public Health program.

“Steven Johnson is a biographer of change. But I think what makes his work so fascinating is that it ultimately concerns us,” said Austin bunn, director of the Milstein program in Ithaca and associate professor and Koenig Jacobson Sesquicentennial Fellow in the Department of Performing and Media Arts at the College of Arts and Sciences, during his presentation of Johnson. “His books tell the story of social, scientific and technological innovations through people: their ingenuity, their mistakes, their waves of insight, their dedication and their very real sacrifices. It is a fundamentally optimistic and humanistic view of history. In his story, good ideas, those that change lives and open the world, have protagonists. And any of us could be. “

Johnson, author of 13 books including the recent “Extra Life: A Brief History of Living LongerGave a public lecture and also met students and professors during his visit. He is co-host and co-creator of two PBS series, Extra life, which premiered on May 11 and the Emmy-winning PBS / BBC series How we got to now from 2014.

Over the past 100 years, global life expectancy has doubled from 35 to 70, Johnson said. But “in a sense, progress is measured in non-events – the smallpox infection that you didn’t get at 3 years old, the car accident in which you didn’t die because you had a seat belt, ”he said. “We have an interesting blind spot for this kind of progress, but pandemics tend to make this kind of invisible progress visible. “

Johnson speaks with the students and signs books after his speech.

Telling the story of the smallpox vaccine, Johnson explained that although Edward Jenner had the idea of ​​injecting people with small amounts of a similar virus, smallpox, the idea would never have taken off without the earlier efforts of Mary Montagu. A wealthy member of the British elite, Montagu traveled to Turkey where she saw people successfully experimenting with variolation (deliberately injecting someone with a small amount of the virus to build immunity). She had her own children vaccinated against smallpox and brought the idea back to England, where the practice spread across the country and then across the world.

“Montagu was not a doctor, not a scientist, not a medical professional or a public health expert, but she was an open connector to new ideas and was able to champion those ideas,” Johnson said. “You have people doing amazing things, but you also have to have people fighting for those ideas, getting them flowing, crossing borders, literal geographic boundaries but also intellectual. This role is just as important.

To help smallpox vaccination take off, new needles were invented and refrigeration systems were developed. The global smallpox experience also paved the way in the next century for the creation of organizations like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control in the United States, which continue to help make campaigns for public health such as the deployment of more efficient and effective vaccines.

Johnson said similar stories can be found of collaborations to fight famine, push for pasteurization of milk and develop drug safety regulations that led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration.

Looking to the future, Johnson said some of the main health challenges for decades to come relate to inequalities in lifespan and health (how long people live in good health) and how long people live in good health. balancing the benefits of gene editing and anti-aging technologies with ethical considerations.

“We lack an institution capable of tackling very complex ethical issues that impact the world,” Johnson said, “just as we have had to invent institutions like the WHO to coordinate change at that level. in terms of smallpox eradication, we may have to do the same to think about new medical scientific breakthroughs It is a complicated task.

But Johnson said his research gives him hope the company will rise up to tackle any new health challenges that arise. “We’ve done these tough things before. “

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