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Writer Paolo Giordano on why outbreaks are 'mathematical emergencies'

As the novel coronavirus extended beyond China, making contagion maps of the world redder, Paolo Giordano saw an opportunity to reflect on how our behavior was changing while the outbreak was infecting daily life.

The scientist and author said he was glued to news updates as novel coronavirus overwhelmed Italy. As that nation went into lockdown in early March to limit the spread of COVID-19, Giordano wrote as much as he could to capture how the outbreak — soon thereafter, an official pandemic — was changing society.

During those weeks, "everybody was alert, and there was a space for saying things not only about the emergency, but also about the relationship that this emergency has with our usual life, our civilization, the way we connect with each other," he told the PBS NewsHour.

That urgency inspired "How Contagion Works," his recent book-length essay that acts as a time capsule of the crisis in one of the earliest-hit countries. To date, the virus has killed more than 29,000 people in Italy, whose health care system was strapped by the virus. Global leaders looked to what happened in Italy as a cautionary tale on how to act to the escalating emergencies caused by the pandemic. Using that context as foundation, Giordano looks closely at our relationship with the natural world, largely through a mathematical lens, to better understand the crisis.

"Epidemics are mathematical emergencies first and foremost," Giordano wrote early into his essay.

The book is available as an audiobook with Penguin Random House, and as a paperback and ebook with Bloomsbury.

But Giordano fears that his small window to examine these momentous times to an enraptured audience is closing.

On Monday, Italy began easing its lockdown measures, and, Giordano said, "everybody is already looking ahead for starting life again, doing things again. But I don't know. I'm not sure we want to start exactly in the same way we stopped."

The PBS NewsHour's Jeffrey Brown spoke with the "The Solitude of Prime Numbers" novelist about why he was compelled to write about the virus, why he used math to tell the story of the contagion, and how decisions we make today will shape what the world will look like in the years ahead.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

First, tell me about your own situation. You're in Rome. What is life like for you now?

We've been in this national lockdown since March 9 [and restrictions are just easing now]. But many Italian people were a little disappointed by listening to our prime minister on Sunday night because everybody was expecting a stronger, let's say, relaxing of the measures. But it won't really change [much] for us. We will be able to go out again in the parks and take walks. Right now, we can only go out for groceries and the streets are empty. And Rome has never been so clean in the last years.

How has it been, though, psychologically or even healthwise, for friends, for your own family, both in Rome and where you're from in the north?

Luckily, I haven't had people directly related to me who have been affected or who died. But let's say there is one degree of separation because most of my family lives in Piacenza, a small town in the north of Italy, close to Lombardy, and it was one of the most severely hit cities in Italy. So the situation there, from what I hear from them, is rather heavy.

Tell me about this book that you've put out. What is it for you? What are you trying to do?

I wrote the book the week before the lockdown started. The epidemic had just started in Italy, and there was a lot of confusion everywhere. People were still divided into two groups. Some were saying, "We need to be cautious because this is going to be dangerous." And other people were saying, "No, this is just a regular seasonal flu, there's nothing to worry about." Pretty much the same thing that happened in each country after Italy, which was pretty interesting to watch.

So I wrote the book very fast against this confusion. I was writing articles as well for the newspaper because those seem to be the fastest way to be effective in raising consciousness in people. But there were also things about this epidemic that needed slightly slower thoughts. The kind of thoughts you look for in a book, in an essay. And so, I decided to do this alongside the articles. But I had to do it very fast because it was very clear that publishers would soon shut down.

It's slightly slower, but you're writing with a real sense of urgency, and you say, "I don't want to lose what the epidemic is revealing about ourselves." Tell me about the sense of urgency in writing. You are a writer, so it's what you do. But this is a little different here.

This is very different because I'm a very slow writer, normally. But somehow this epidemic is changing a lot of paradigms and even the pace of the writing has been changed, for me, since it started. It was way more important to communicate things than to — I wouldn't say do it in the right way — but you know, focus on every stylistic detail. It was just a matter of urgency. What I thought at the time is that there is a very small window of attention that was being opened in people. So everybody was alert and there was a space for saying things not only about the emergency but also about the relationship that this emergency has with our usual life, our civilization, the way we connect with each other. So I said to myself, "I have to try and take advantage of this very small window that will very soon close." And that's exactly what happened here in Italy because everybody is already looking ahead for starting life again, doing things again. But I don't know. I'm not sure we want to start exactly in the same way we stopped.

You're a novelist, but you also have a doctorate in physics. And one of the interesting things you've done here is approach the idea of pandemic and contagion through math. Why math? How does it help us in understanding what's going on?

I don't know how familiar Americans are becoming with the idea of "R0" (Editor's note: Pronounced "R-naught"). I assume epidemiologists there, and also journalists, now talk about 'R-naught'.

Yeah, that's "R" and then "naught" for zero.

Exactly. And nobody had ever heard about "R-naught" in Italy before this started. Only people who studied those things. But there is a phase in every epidemic, the first part of an epidemic, where you understand things more through math than through medicine or other ways because what you need to do is imagine how the contagion will develop in the population. So you need very basic mathematical tools to understand what the curve of contagion is or the difference between a susceptible person and the recovered person and an infected person. And then what "R-naught" is — basically the speed at which the epidemic spreads.

"Flattening the curve" has been discussed widely in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Why does it work? The PBS NewsHour spoke with mathematical biologist Alun Lloyd to better understand how our actions can affect the reproduction rate of the virus, and how a slower curve can affect our economy.

And once you have these very simple tools, I think you can better understand also the sacrifices and the measures that are put in place that are asked from you, like wash your hands more frequently or keep social distancing. Well, the mathematical meaning of this is that we need to lower the value of "R-naught" down below the critical value of 1, so that the epidemic stops spreading and it starts to slow down. And I saw that mathematics was simply a very symbolic and concise way to tell people what was happening and what each of us had to do.

It's interesting, though, because while math and science can help us in that way, you also write about a kind of counter phenomenon in which you talk about science having failed us. And that's both in understanding the pandemic, but also the ways in which we humans have impacted nature and the natural world.

Science is human as any other discipline right now. I have never seen so many scientists on television. And this is helping to see a very instructive side of science, which is the way scientists not only see the world, but also communicate their vision of the world. It's very rare to hear people on television saying, "We don't know this. We need to prove this. We need to be cautious, and just keeping calm no matter what." That's not what we were used to from politicians and even journalists, I should say. I think this is spreading a different attitude to the world, which is very good.

But, of course, science is human. So we're also seeing examples of contradictions, confusions. Experts in the first place, were very divided and confused about this virus, as it's always the case with science. Science is more about doubt than about certainty.

I spoke recently to Jane Goodall, the renowned researcher and environmentalist, and she talked about the disrespect for the natural world, the disregard for animal life, and tied that to the coming of pandemics and the changes in our own lives. And I was interested to see that you did something similar in your writing, thinking about how our behavior over time — in very large ways that we often don't think about — has now sort of come home to us. Tell me about the specific things you see that have led to this moment.

We don't know yet how COVID-19 emerged, how it came to humans. There are speculations. Scientists are looking for the animal species that were the host from which it happened. But we cannot really say a lot now about the origins of this, but there are very clear — I don't know how to call them — chains of consequences. They are very clear for a scientist because they have happened before, many times. And those, I think, are the ones that people should become familiar with.

One very simple scenario is about deforestation. We are being more and more aggressive toward nature through deforestation, for instance. And what happens with deforestation, it can happen in places like tropical forests where there is a very rich biodiversity. So viruses and bacteria live there that we don't know anything about. And some of them may be harmful for us humans. So when we destroy part of the forest, we come in contact with those new pathogens and maybe they are in need of a new host because their small ecosystem has been destroyed by us. And we are there. And we're very convenient for a virus as a host because we are many. We move a lot. What happens is that we're making more and more likely the possibility that new diseases emerge or better pass from nature to us because we are part of that ecosystem too, even though we often forget about it.

MORE: Why Jane Goodall says human disregard for nature led to the coronavirus pandemic

As a novelist, as someone who looks at human behavior or writes about it through fiction, what do you see in the future for us? I've been reading about the history of past pandemics and in what ways did it change us socially, culturally, politically. What do you see, or what do you imagine?

At least in my experience, let's say, the horizon has never been so close to my eyes. We're at the level that we don't know what we will be able to do in two weeks. So it's very difficult to speculate about the future.

I think it really depends on what we do now because this is a moment of emergency when many, very sudden and dramatic decisions are taken with respect to our security, to our social life, to everything. I think we really need to be more aware than ever in this moment because the decisions that are taken now are going to stay with us longer than the epidemic. We're really deciding today how the world will look like in a few years. We're already seeing very bad examples of countries where there were authoritarian turns in directions that weren't taken because of the pandemic. We know that there are structural changes that we need. We talked about the environment. We can talk about information. We can talk about cooperation between nations. We have to decide those things today because this is also a chance to rethink them.

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