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Columns

Pandemic, Purpose, and Viral Peptides

By Tessa K.J. Haining, Contributing Opinion Writer
Tessa K.J. Haining ’23 lives in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

“We always find something,” posits one of Samuel Beckett’s quixotic protagonists in “Waiting for Godot,” “to give us the impression we exist, [don’t we]?” “Yes, yes, we’re magicians,” snaps the other in response, before reaching down to wedge a pair of boots on his compatriot’s feet.

To give us the impression we exist.

In a play whose every absurdity undermines the purpose and direction we associate with life, this line holds extra weight: How do we know we exist? What keeps us going? What makes us alive?

These are all big questions, and after quite some time in medias pandemic, they’re ones that I’ve found myself reflecting on more than usual. I used to define my life by the actions, routines, habits that gave me forward momentum: the nine-to-five bustle of a college-class day, the chirp of a 5:55 a.m. alarm through a pitch-black morning, the glimmer of Thanksgiving on the other side of midterm-week blues. That was what gave me the impression I existed, to borrow Beckett’s phraseology — the tantalizing not-quite-understanding that I was working towards something, that I was metabolizing my experiences and my movements to reach someplace new.

But for the last eight months, to tie it all back to “Waiting for Godot,” we’ve been living in one big pandemic-themed theater of the absurd. Our daily lives have been blown apart and stitched back together with bizarre extremes, an unrecognizable new norm making the quotidian we took for granted seem all the more alien. Just as Beckett’s never-arriving Godot subverts that very forward momentum around which I delineated my life, so too has this pandemic forced us to reconstruct just what gives us the impression we exist.

The peculiar thing about it is that, with no easy way to define our own lives, we’ve instead put all our psychological effort into animating the protagonist of our pandemic: the coronavirus. Or, to be more specific, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19. SARS-CoV-2 might be nothing more than tiny waxy packages of chemicals, but to the battered public consciousness, it’s gained a life of its own. Who hasn’t heard the coronavirus characterized as “smart,” or read a pundit’s comments on what the coronavirus “wants” to do, or even just seen it in pictures as a green-and-red ball with angry eyebrows and a face?

And it’s not just the public who find themselves stymied by the interpretation of viruses, either – for decades, viruses have been undermining everything scientists use to define what gives living beings the impression they exist. The word “virus” itself comes from Latin for “poison,” because they first appeared to scientists in the late 1800s as some disease-causing agent (or “pathogen”) invisibly smaller than bacteria, which for hundreds of years we’d known as wriggling, living things. It wasn’t until 1935, when Wendell M. Stanley used an electron microscope to isolate a virus for the first time, that scientists got quite a shock.

Unlike bacteria, which have membrane-bound cells, robust genomic DNA, and myriad enzymes to let them “eat,” “drink,” and reproduce just like we do, viruses … don’t have any of those. A thousand times smaller than the simplest bacterium, viruses like SARS-CoV-2 consist of nothing more than a fickle 30,000-base-pair spool of RNA wrapped up in a waxy phospholipid envelope, with four different proteins that hold it all together. That’s it. They have absolutely no means of staying alive on their own. If you consider the cell to be the base unit of life, a teeny-tiny ecosystem, then viruses are more like a lump of chemical scrap materials — not alive by any biological definition.

But viruses, as we very well know by now, wreak far more havoc than a lump of chemical materials should. When a virion (individual particle) of SARS-CoV-2 floats through the air and into the respiratory tract, its “S” (spike) protein on the outside of its envelope gloms on to a particular protein on the surface of lung cells. A fusion peptide comes out like a grappling hook to grab the lung cell membrane and fuse the viral membrane with the host cell’s, spitting its RNA into the cell. Once inside, the viral RNA inserts itself into the lung cell’s protein-production machinery, and the host itself unwittingly produces dozens of new virions to go out and infect even more cells, setting off immune alarm bells that cause inflammation and disease.

That’s why viruses stretch our definition of life itself. If viruses aren’t alive by any biological means, how come they seem to act with purpose, to target us as a society? They’re inanimate, unthinking lumps of chemicals, yet this one has torn our lives so far apart that we can’t bear to see it as what viruses really are: stochastic material, without motive, products of pure bad luck. And that’s the real, complementary absurdity of “Waiting for Godot” and the coronavirus. Like Beckett’s play, viruses have no forward momentum or decision or direction; they just are. More viruses exist on our planet than there are stars in the sky, and by nothing more than the random dice rolls of evolution, this one has transcended its mundane existence to become the unthinkable, the absurd.

So maybe that’s a lesson from this pandemic, then, from science and from art as one: Our impression that we exist is just that. We’ve been trying to make this virus seem alive, to give it purpose, because in this pandemic we ourselves have lost that purpose we used to define our lives. But the coronavirus teaches us that life, whether it be on campus or at home or inside a cell membrane, isn’t inherently good or inherently bad or inherently out to get you. It just is, and there’s something freeing in that.

Tessa K.J. Haining ’23 lives in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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