Friday, June 24, 2016
June 20, 2016 Issue
Pick of the Issue this week is Raffi Khatchadourian’s brilliant "The Unseen," an “Annals of Science” piece about microbiology. I almost passed it up. I’m not crazy about science writing. But Katchadourian has written some of the best New Yorker pieces of the last five years. Recall his extraordinary "Transfiguration" (February 13 & 20, 2012), for example. So I decided to plunge in, and was immediately caught up in the description of 1960s Soviet Moscow – the Exhibition of the Achievements of the National Economy, the Cosmos Pavilion, the Monument to the Conquerors of Space, Vostok rockets, and Soyuz orbiters. On one level, “The Unseen” is a dual profile of microbiologists Slava Epstein and Kim Lewis. On another, it’s a fascinating account of Epstein and Lewis’s discovery of a powerful new antibiotic. And on a third, it’s an alarming report on a potential end-of-the-road for antibiotics. Along the way, Katchadourian explores, among other things, the Great Oxygenation Event, the Age of Microbes, and the Great Plate Count Anomaly. There are no flashy sentences in “The Unseen”; it’s built solidly of fact (e.g., “More than half the cells in the human body are microbial”; “That our atmosphere is twenty-one percent oxygen is a bacterial fact”; “Already there are strains of tuberculosis and gonorrhea, among other pathogens, that are resistant to virtually every drug in the medical arsenal”). But it's the exotic blend of samizdat and petri dish, refuseniks and microbial weeds, Sakharov and lantern-eye fish that appealed to me. “The Unseen” is a curious, distinctive literary brew. I enjoyed it immensely.