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Reality is far stranger than fiction.
- Black holes are stranger than fiction, especially when we explore the weird effects of watching someone or something fall into one.
- Rotating black holes may be traversable if the physics as we understand it holds.
- To discuss the physics, we explore a fictional tale with a grand ending.
What happens when someone falls into a black hole? If you are the unfortunate soul being gobbled up, things don't look too bad until they turn really bad. Unless, there is an outlet through a wormhole. And you are really lucky.
The fictional story below — an abridged version of one published in my 2002 book The Prophet and the Astronomer explains why. Since we now know that black holes exist and that even Jeff Bezos can fly into outer space, it is only a matter of time before humans fly into black holes — albeit a very, very long time from now: the nearest black hole to Earth (as of now) lies a "mere" 1,500 light-years away.
But first, a refresher. In his general theory of relativity, Albert Einstein equated gravity with the curvature of space around a massive body. The effect is quite negligible for light masses but becomes important for massive stars and even more so for very compact massive objects such as neutron stars, whose gravity is 100,000 times stronger than at the sun's surface. Distortions of space caused by a larger mass (stars) will cause small moving masses (planets) to deviate from what Newtonian gravity predicts. Another remarkable consequence of Einstein's theory of gravity is the slowing down of clocks in strong gravitational fields: strong gravity bends space and slows down time.
Now, on with the story.
In my young days, I traveled from planet to planet looking for old spaceship parts. It was in one of my travels in search of a rare gyroscope for a 2180 Mars Lander that I found "Mr. Ström's Rocket Parts," an enormous hanger littered with mountains of space garbage. While I was consulting the store's virtual stock-scanning device to search for the gyroscope, Mr. Ström himself came to greet me. He was famous throughout the galaxy for claiming to have come closer than anyone to a black hole, a story that, to most, was just that — a story.
Like many before me, I asked Mr. Ström to tell me his story. After hesitating a while, he gave in.
"I was commander of a fleet built to explore the complex astrophysical X-ray source known as Cygnus X-1," he started. "Since the 1970s, over three millennia ago, this was suspected to be a binary star system 6,000 light-years from Earth. The two members of the binary system, thought to be a blue giant star about 20-30 solar masses and a black hole about 7-15 solar masses, orbited so close together that the black hole frantically sucked matter from his huge companion into a spiraling oblivion. This mad swirling heated the in-falling stellar matter to enormous temperatures, producing the X-rays astronomers on Earth observed. Even though the data indicated that the smaller object of the pair had a mass much larger than the maximum mass for neutron stars, it was still not clear if it was a black hole. Since other attempts to identify it had failed, the League of Planets decided that the only way to know for sure was to go there.
"The fleet consisted of three vessels, each under the command of a Ström, a great honor to my family. I led the vessel named CX1, my middle brother led CX2, and the youngest led CX3. I will spare you the details of how the mission was prepared, and how, after many problems with our hyper-relativistic plasma drive, we finally arrived to within one light-month of our destination. Through our telescopes we could see an enormous hot blue star being drained by an invisible hole in space.
"We were instructed to fly single file toward the black hole, keeping a very large distance from each other; my younger brother first, my mid-brother second, and me last. We knew that, from a large distance, a black hole behaves like any other massive object, as the differences general relativity predicted happen only fairly close to it. We also knew that every black hole has an imaginary limiting sphere around it known as the 'event horizon,' which marks the distance from which not even light could escape.
"My young brother's ship, the CX3, was to approach the hole, sending us periodic light flashes with a given frequency; we were to follow at a distance, measuring the frequency of the radiation emitted by my brother's ship as well as the time interval between the pulses, and then compare them with the theoretical predictions for gravitational redshift and time delay. The three vessels plunged to a distance of 10,000 kilometers from the hole; while CX1 and CX2 hovered at that distance, my brother closed in to 100 kilometers from the hole. He was instructed to send us infrared radiation, but we detected only radio waves. The gravitational redshift formula was indeed correct. Furthermore, the intervals between two pulses increased quite perceptibly; time was flowing slower for my brother, as viewed from our distant ships. He plunged to the dangerously close distance of ten kilometers from the hole, only seven from the event horizon; this was the closest distance the ship could stand, due to the enormous tidal forces around the hole, which stretch everything into spaghetti. (Numbers assume a one-solar-mass black hole.)
"From that close orbit, my brother was to send pulses of visible light, but all we detected were (invisible) radio waves; we could not see my brother's ship any longer, and I started to feel very uneasy. The theory was correct: a ship falling into a black hole will become invisible to a more distant ship (us) due to the red shifting of light. That also meant that we would never be able to see a star collapsing into a black hole, as it will become invisible before it meets its end. A related effect was the slowing of time. As my younger brother approached the black hole, the radiation pulses were arriving at increasingly long intervals. Thus, not only could we not see him, but we would also have to wait an enormous amount of time to receive any message from him. This confirmed the prediction that for a distant observer, the collapse of a star would take forever. Of course, for the unlucky traveler that freefalls into the black hole, nothing unusual with the passage of time would happen, as explained by the equivalence principle: gravity is neutralized in free fall. Unfortunately, his body would be horribly stretched.
"The turbulence and steady bombardment of matter swirling around the black hole caused my brother's spaceship to drift uncontrollably into the maelstrom. I had to try to rescue him. After all, this was a rotating black hole, and the theory predicted that instead of a crushing singularity at its center, there should be a wormhole connected to another point in the universe. A desperate maneuver to be sure.
"My mid-brother waited in a safe distant orbit around the black hole. As I plunged in, the whirling of space dragged me in as water into a drain. The combination of enormous gravitational pull and furious bombardment of radiation and particles took a toll on my ship; but its fuselage miraculously — what else could it be but a miracle? — survived, as I did, thanks to the once controversial anti-crunch shield. Outside, space seemed to convulse into infinitely many coexisting shapes. Inside a black hole, I realized, reality had no boundaries.
"I felt an enormous push, as if the spaceship was being coughed up by a giant. I must have remained unconscious for quite a while. When I looked into a mirror, I could hardly believe what I saw; my hair had turned completely white, and my face was covered with wrinkles I didn't have moments (moments?) ago. I checked my location in the computer and realized that, somehow, I re-emerged 2,000 light-years away from Cygnus X-1. The only possible explanation was that I traveled through a wormhole, which somehow was kept open inside the black hole and was tossed out by a white hole at a faraway point in space."
Apart from the sequence of facts inside the black hole — where we know very little — the rest is what we should expect from watching someone fall into a black hole. Reality, for these cosmic maelstroms, is definitely stranger than fiction.
Strange underwater icicles form in the Earth's coldest regions and freeze living organisms in place.
- Spectacular brinicles form under the ice of our planet's coldest regions.
- Their formation resembles that of hydrothermal vents.
- The structures have been called "icy fingers of death" because of their ability to freeze living organisms.
Nature's grace and fury find equal measure in unique formations called brinicles or more evocatively "icy fingers of death." The strange phenomenon that forms these underwater icicles can be found in the oceans of the planet's polar regions. It's been rarely captured on camera as it occurs under floating sea ice. Brinicles are structures that resemble fingers of ice that can reach all the way down to the ocean floor, freezing everything in their paths, including creatures like starfish or sea urchins.
In an interview with Wired, professor Andrew Thurber of Oregon State University, who has seen brinicles first-hand, described them as "upside-down cacti that are blown from glass, like something from Dr. Seuss's imagination." He also said they are "incredibly delicate and can break with only the slightest touch."
The video below shows stunning footage of brinicles from BBC's Frozen Planet series:
'Brinicle' ice finger of death
How brinicles form
A study found that when sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic regions freezes, salt and other ions normally found in seawater get left out. Brine, which is concentrated salt water, gathers in various fractures and channels in the sea ice. Brine requires much lower temperatures to freeze and stays liquid until the ice cracks and the brine leaks into the ocean below. Being heavier than water, the ultra-cold brine sinks down to the ocean floor, freezing seawater it touches on its way down. This is responsible for the finger-like shape of the brinicles.
Notably, the downward-facing brinicle ice tubes, first discovered in the 1960s, form in a way similar to hydrothermal vents, which have been theorized as cradles of life on Earth. Hydrothermal vents form when ion-rich hot water gets ejected from the seafloor, creating a porous metal tower that extends upward. Water rushes through the tower, rupturing it, and causing more metal-rich water to expand the tower.
Thousands of brinicles can be found under the ice off Little Razorback Island, Antarctica.Credit: Andrew Thurber / Oregon State University.
Could brinicles be cradles of life?
Study author Bruno Escribano of the Basque Center for Applied Mathematics in Spain explained that, like hydrothermal vents, brinicles also could have played a role in the origin of life. "Inside these compartments inside the ice, you have a high concentration of chemical compounds, and you also have lipids, fats, that coat the inside of the compartment," he shared. "These can act as a primitive membrane — one of the conditions necessary for life."
He elaborated that inside the brinicles is a mixture of acidic and basic components that may be able to supply the requisite energy for the formation of more complex molecules, potentially even DNA.
A theorhetical physicist returns to Penrose and Hameroff's theory of "quantum consciousness."
One of the most important open questions in science is how our consciousness is established.
In the 1990s, long before winning the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics for his prediction of black holes, physicist Roger Penrose teamed up with anaesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff to propose an ambitious answer.
They claimed that the brain's neuronal system forms an intricate network and that the consciousness this produces should obey the rules of quantum mechanics – the theory that determines how tiny particles like electrons move around. This, they argue, could explain the mysterious complexity of human consciousness.
Penrose and Hameroff were met with incredulity. Quantum mechanical laws are usually only found to apply at very low temperatures. Quantum computers, for example, currently operate at around -272°C. At higher temperatures, classical mechanics takes over. Since our body works at room temperature, you would expect it to be governed by the classical laws of physics. For this reason, the quantum consciousness theory has been dismissed outright by many scientists – though others are persuaded supporters.
Instead of entering into this debate, I decided to join forces with colleagues from China, led by Professor Xian-Min Jin at Shanghai Jiaotong University, to test some of the principles underpinning the quantum theory of consciousness.
In our new paper, we've investigated how quantum particles could move in a complex structure like the brain – but in a lab setting. If our findings can one day be compared with activity measured in the brain, we may come one step closer to validating or dismissing Penrose and Hameroff's controversial theory.
Brains and fractals
Our brains are composed of cells called neurons, and their combined activity is believed to generate consciousness. Each neuron contains microtubules, which transport substances to different parts of the cell. The Penrose-Hameroff theory of quantum consciousness argues that microtubules are structured in a fractal pattern which would enable quantum processes to occur.
Fractals are structures that are neither two-dimensional nor three-dimensional, but are instead some fractional value in between. In mathematics, fractals emerge as beautiful patterns that repeat themselves infinitely, generating what is seemingly impossible: a structure that has a finite area, but an infinite perimeter.
This might sound impossible to visualise, but fractals actually occur frequently in nature. If you look closely at the florets of a cauliflower or the branches of a fern, you'll see that they're both made up of the same basic shape repeating itself over and over again, but at smaller and smaller scales. That's a key characteristic of fractals.
The same happens if you look inside your own body: the structure of your lungs, for instance, is fractal, as are the blood vessels in your circulatory system. Fractals also feature in the enchanting repeating artworks of MC Escher and Jackson Pollock, and they've been used for decades in technology, such as in the design of antennas. These are all examples of classical fractals – fractals that abide by the laws of classical physics rather than quantum physics.
It's easy to see why fractals have been used to explain the complexity of human consciousness. Because they're infinitely intricate, allowing complexity to emerge from simple repeated patterns, they could be the structures that support the mysterious depths of our minds.
But if this is the case, it could only be happening on the quantum level, with tiny particles moving in fractal patterns within the brain's neurons. That's why Penrose and Hameroff's proposal is called a theory of “quantum consciousness".
We're not yet able to measure the behaviour of quantum fractals in the brain – if they exist at all. But advanced technology means we can now measure quantum fractals in the lab. In recent research involving a scanning tunnelling microscope (STM), my colleagues at Utrecht and I carefully arranged electrons in a fractal pattern, creating a quantum fractal.
When we then measured the wave function of the electrons, which describes their quantum state, we found that they too lived at the fractal dimension dictated by the physical pattern we'd made. In this case, the pattern we used on the quantum scale was the Sierpiński triangle, which is a shape that's somewhere between one-dimensional and two-dimensional.
This was an exciting finding, but STM techniques cannot probe how quantum particles move – which would tell us more about how quantum processes might occur in the brain. So in our latest research, my colleagues at Shanghai Jiaotong University and I went one step further. Using state-of-the-art photonics experiments, we were able to reveal the quantum motion that takes place within fractals in unprecedented detail.
We achieved this by injecting photons (particles of light) into an artificial chip that was painstakingly engineered into a tiny Sierpiński triangle. We injected photons at the tip of the triangle and watched how they spread throughout its fractal structure in a process called quantum transport. We then repeated this experiment on two different fractal structures, both shaped as squares rather than triangles. And in each of these structures we conducted hundreds of experiments.
We also conducted experiments on a square-shaped fractal called the Sierpiński carpet. (Johannes Rössel/wikimedia)
Our observations from these experiments reveal that quantum fractals actually behave in a different way to classical ones. Specifically, we found that the spread of light across a fractal is governed by different laws in the quantum case compared to the classical case.
This new knowledge of quantum fractals could provide the foundations for scientists to experimentally test the theory of quantum consciousness. If quantum measurements are one day taken from the human brain, they could be compared against our results to definitely decide whether consciousness is a classical or a quantum phenomenon.
Our work could also have profound implications across scientific fields. By investigating quantum transport in our artificially designed fractal structures, we may have taken the first tiny steps towards the unification of physics, mathematics and biology, which could greatly enrich our understanding of the world around us as well as the world that exists in our heads.
One single plot of data embodies the most profound thing we know about the stars.
- Just like people, stars are born, grow old, and die.
- Astrophysicists figured this out by studying stars' brightness and temperatures.
- This data is beautifully and powerfully captured in the Hertzsprung-Russell (HR) diagram.
Stars are just like us! I don't mean that in a "Dua Lipa likes to wear pajamas when she shops for milk" kind of way. What I'm talking about are life cycles.
Stars are born, live, and die. Just like us. That's a pretty amazing fact in and of itself when you consider that for most of human history, folks thought stars were eternal and unchanging. Instead, stars change over the course of time, just like we do.
Last week, we took a first look at the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram (HR diagram), which is how astronomers discovered that stars have life cycles. I called it "the most important graph in astrophysics." It's so important that it deserves another look today. So, let's take a deeper dive to see how it reveals the patterns of stellar biography.
Explaining the HR diagram
An HR diagram is a plot of stellar luminosity (energy output) on the vertical axis and stellar surface temperature on the horizonal axis. The major focus of the last post was the Main Sequence, which is the dense diagonal band that appears when you take a mess of stars and drop them onto this kind of plot.
Why was the appearance of the Main Sequence so important? An HR diagram is really a snapshot of a big collection of stars taken at random points in their lives. Say we go out one night and point our telescope at 100,000 stars and measure their luminosity ("L") and their temperature ("T"). Based on those measured values of L and T, we drop each star onto their appropriate location in the diagram.
This is a lot like going to the mall and measuring the height (H) and weight (W) of random people you run into and then plotting the results on a Height vs. Weight plot. What do you think you would see if you collected H and W for 1000 random human beings.? The majority of your points would show humans with heights between 5 and 6 feet tall and weights between 100 and 250 pounds. Why? Because that's the range of height and weight for middle-aged adults — and we all spend most of our lives in middle age (say, between 25 and 65).
But there are exceptions. You would also expect to see a cluster of really small heights and weights for babies and little kids. In addition, you would expect some medium heights and lower weights representing old people. But most people would fall on a band in your plot of H and W between (5 feet, 100 pounds) and (6 feet, 250 pounds).
Main Sequence: A star's middle age
So, what then is the Main Sequence? It's the place where the stars "live" on the HR diagram in their middle age. Boom! So simple and yet so profound. Stars change. Their properties change. They have life cycles, and that means that the place we expect to find most of them (in terms of their changing properties on the HR diagram) is where they spend most of their lives — that is, their middle ages.
What defines a star's long middle age? It's the period when they are burning hydrogen gas as a fuel for fusion. Stars support themselves against the gravitational crush of their own weight via thermonuclear fusion in their cores. Fusion occurs when light elements get squeezed into heavier elements, releasing a little energy in the process (via E = mc2). Since hydrogen is the most abundant and lightest element in the universe, it's the first gas that gets fused in a star's core. As long as stars have hydrogen to burn, you will find them on the Main Sequence.
Only after the hydrogen fuel for fusion runs out does a star face a kind of late-life crisis in which it must change its interior conditions to get the next element, helium, to start fusing. But once that happens, the star "moves" off the Main Sequence.
Another question is, "Why is the Main Sequence a diagonal band running from high L and T to low L and T?" The answer lies in the physics of nuclear fusion. High mass stars have a high gravitational crush in their centers, which raises their core temperatures. Nuclear fusion rates are crazy sensitive to temperature. That means massive stars burn their hydrogen hot and fast, producing huge energy outputs. So, the Main Sequence is also a sequence in stellar mass. The high-mass stars are up in the high L and T corner, while the low-mass stars are in the low L and T corner.
The rest of the HR diagram
What about those other collections of stars on the HR diagram? What are the "giants" and the "dwarves" telling us about the life cycles of stars? We'll have to pick up that tale next time.
Eight-eyed arachnids can tell when an object's movement is not quite right.
- The ability to distinguish lifelike and non-lifelike movements is an important survival skill.
- Harvard scientists discovered that at least one invertebrate can do this.
- Scientists tested jumping spiders as they watched an animation and scuttled about on a floating treadmill.
The ability to discern living beings from inanimate objects is a useful skill. Lifelike movement is an important clue here: living things have a distinct way of moving that inanimate objects do not.
We know that this ability to distinguish the living from the non-living is common among vertebrates, but now a new study from Harvard scientists demonstrates that at least one invertebrate can do it, too. It's the jumping spider, the one with two big eyes and three little ones on either side.
The jumping spider's ability to readily identify living objects based on movement raises a larger question: is this a trait that's widespread among animals? The peculiar method the researchers used for their arachnid subjects may be of use in finding out.
Follow the dots
From previous human experiments, it was known that if a group of dots is animated to resemble the movement of human joints, we perceive that they represent a moving human. If the dots are still or move in a weird way, we simply perceive them as dots.
For this study with jumping spiders, the authors implemented a similar technique. Using a bunch of dots on a display screen, the researchers created ten animations. from these dots. (In most cases, the authors used dots, though they sometimes used other shapes, including a spider silhouette.) Some of the animations resembled spiders scurrying across the screen; others dots moved in a random manner.
Spider-like movementCredit: De Agrò, et al / PLOS BIOLOGY
Who knowsCredit: De Agrò, et al / PLOS BIOLOGY
To get the spiders to look at the animations, the researchers devised a sphere-based treadmill. Each spider was placed on a small platform atop a polystyrene ball floating on a cushion of air. The spider, resting on its cephalothorax, could "walk" in any direction as it responded to an animation. Really, though, it was staying put and actually just experiencing the illusion of movement as it moved the floating ball with its feet.
The researchers tested their dots on 60 jumping spiders of the species Menemerus semilimbatus, which were selected because of their unusual visual system. Their two large central eyes are understood to be the most capable, but they lack a wide field of vision. That's where the secondary eyes that wrap around the head come in. When these secondary eyes spot something interesting, the spiders direct their two large eyes toward it for a closer look.
This is exactly what happened when the spiders were shown an animation that moved in an unfamiliar, non-lifelike way. They appeared concerned. They swung their two large eyes toward these incomprehensible objects, apparently in an effort to make sense of them. This was especially true when they were shown animations exhibiting totally random, nonsensical movement.
However, for animations that moved like a living creature, the spiders remained still.
As the study's lead author, Massimi De Agrò, recalled, "The secondary eyes are looking at this point-light display of biological motion and it can already understand it, whereas the other random motion is weird and they don't understand what's there."
De Agrò says that their unique treadmill should allow the researchers to test whether insects, mollusks, and other invertebrates also have the ability to recognize "living" dot patterns.
Smallpox was nothing new in 1721.
Exactly 300 years ago, in 1721, Benjamin Franklin and his fellow American colonists faced a deadly smallpox outbreak.
Their varying responses constitute an eerily prescient object lesson for today's world, similarly devastated by a virus and divided over vaccination three centuries later.
As a microbiologist and a Franklin scholar, we see some parallels between then and now that could help governments, journalists and the rest of us cope with the coronavirus pandemic and future threats.
Smallpox strikes Boston
Smallpox was nothing new in 1721. Known to have affected people for at least 3,000 years, it ran rampant in Boston, eventually striking more than half the city's population. The virus killed about 1 in 13 residents – but the death toll was probably more, since the lack of sophisticated epidemiology made it impossible to identify the cause of all deaths.
What was new, at least to Boston, was a simple procedure that could protect people from the disease. It was known as “variolation" or “inoculation," and involved deliberately exposing someone to the smallpox “matter" from a victim's scabs or pus, injecting the material into the skin using a needle. This approach typically caused a mild disease and induced a state of “immunity" against smallpox.
Even today, the exact mechanism is poorly understood and not much research on variolation has been done. Inoculation through the skin seems to activate an immune response that leads to milder symptoms and less transmission, possibly because of the route of infection and the lower dose. Since it relies on activating the immune response with live smallpox variola virus, inoculation is different from the modern vaccination that eradicated smallpox using the much less harmful but related vaccinia virus.
The inoculation treatment, which originated in Asia and Africa, came to be known in Boston thanks to a man named Onesimus. By 1721, Onesimus was enslaved, owned by the most influential man in all of Boston, the Rev. Cotton Mather.
Known primarily as a Congregational minister, Mather was also a scientist with a special interest in biology. He paid attention when Onesimus told him “he had undergone an operation, which had given him something of the smallpox and would forever preserve him from it; adding that it was often used" in West Africa, where he was from.
Inspired by this information from Onesimus, Mather teamed up with a Boston physician, Zabdiel Boylston, to conduct a scientific study of inoculation's effectiveness worthy of 21st-century praise. They found that of the approximately 300 people Boylston had inoculated, 2% had died, compared with almost 15% of those who contracted smallpox from nature.
The findings seemed clear: Inoculation could help in the fight against smallpox. Science won out in this clergyman's mind. But others were not convinced.
Stirring up controversy
A local newspaper editor named James Franklin had his own affliction – namely an insatiable hunger for controversy. Franklin, who was no fan of Mather, set about attacking inoculation in his newspaper, The New-England Courant.
One article from August 1721 tried to guilt readers into resisting inoculation. If someone gets inoculated and then spreads the disease to someone else, who in turn dies of it, the article asked, “at whose hands shall their Blood be required?" The same article went on to say that “Epidemeal Distempers" such as smallpox come “as Judgments from an angry and displeased God."
In contrast to Mather and Boylston's research, the Courant's articles were designed not to discover, but to sow doubt and distrust. The argument that inoculation might help to spread the disease posits something that was theoretically possible – at least if simple precautions were not taken – but it seems beside the point. If inoculation worked, wouldn't it be worth this small risk, especially since widespread inoculations would dramatically decrease the likelihood that one person would infect another?
Franklin, the Courant's editor, had a kid brother apprenticed to him at the time – a teenager by the name of Benjamin.
Historians don't know which side the younger Franklin took in 1721 – or whether he took a side at all – but his subsequent approach to inoculation years later has lessons for the world's current encounter with a deadly virus and a divided response to a vaccine.
You might expect that James' little brother would have been inclined to oppose inoculation as well. After all, thinking like family members and others you identify with is a common human tendency.
That he was capable of overcoming this inclination shows Benjamin Franklin's capacity for independent thought, an asset that would serve him well throughout his life as a writer, scientist and statesman. While sticking with social expectations confers certain advantages in certain settings, being able to shake off these norms when they are dangerous is also valuable. We believe the most successful people are the ones who, like Franklin, have the intellectual flexibility to choose between adherence and independence.
Truth, not victory
Perhaps the inoculation controversy of 1721 had helped him to understand an unfortunate phenomenon that continues to plague the U.S. in 2021: When people take sides, progress suffers. Tribes, whether long-standing or newly formed around an issue, can devote their energies to demonizing the other side and rallying their own. Instead of attacking the problem, they attack each other.
Franklin, in fact, became convinced that inoculation was a sound approach to preventing smallpox. Years later he intended to have his son Francis inoculated after recovering from a case of diarrhea. But before inoculation took place, the 4-year-old boy contracted smallpox and died in 1736. Citing a rumor that Francis had died because of inoculation and noting that such a rumor might deter parents from exposing their children to this procedure, Franklin made a point of setting the record straight, explaining that the child had “receiv'd the Distemper in the common Way of Infection."
Writing his autobiography in 1771, Franklin reflected on the tragedy and used it to advocate for inoculation. He explained that he “regretted bitterly and still regret" not inoculating the boy, adding, “This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen."
A scientific perspective
A final lesson from 1721 has to do with the importance of a truly scientific perspective, one that embraces science, facts and objectivity.
J. A. Philip; Wikimedia Commons; CC BY 4.0
Inoculation was a relatively new procedure for Bostonians in 1721, and this lifesaving method was not without deadly risks. To address this paradox, several physicians meticulously collected data and compared the number of those who died because of natural smallpox with deaths after smallpox inoculation. Boylston essentially carried out what today's researchers would call a clinical study on the efficacy of inoculation. Knowing he needed to demonstrate the usefulness of inoculation in a diverse population, he reported in a short book how he inoculated nearly 300 individuals and carefully noted their symptoms and conditions over days and weeks.
The recent emergency-use authorization of mRNA-based and viral-vector vaccines for COVID-19 has produced a vast array of hoaxes, false claims and conspiracy theories, especially in various social media. Like 18th-century inoculations, these vaccines represent new scientific approaches to vaccination, but ones that are based on decades of scientific research and clinical studies.
We suspect that if he were alive today, Benjamin Franklin would want his example to guide modern scientists, politicians, journalists and everyone else making personal health decisions. Like Mather and Boylston, Franklin was a scientist with a respect for evidence and ultimately for truth.
When it comes to a deadly virus and a divided response to a preventive treatment, Franklin was clear what he would do. It doesn't take a visionary like Franklin to accept the evidence of medical science today.