I’m writing a screenplay for the next big Hollywood blockbuster. The main character is a Harvard-educated doctor who conducts research on a remote South Pacific Island in the 1960s. The doctor realizes that the native people on this island are suffering from a devastating epidemic. He notes the symptoms of this mysterious disease: first, the infected victims begin to tremble; they lose the ability to walk and begin to laugh a terrible, demonic laugh; dementia and death soon follow.
Before long, the doctor deduces that this nightmarish affliction is transmitted by . . . eating the brains of dead relatives as part of a funeral ritual. (I haven’t quite figured out how to work this detail discretely into the script—I’m writing a classy screenplay, after all, not Silence of the Lambs IV.) Coincidentally, the government has recently outlawed funerary cannibalism and as the native people stop eating human brains, the disease gradually disappears. Doc wins a Nobel Prize for his work. Then he is arrested and spends time in prison. I added that extra bit because the unofficial rules of a Hollywood screenplay state that all geniuses should suffer from serious personal or psychological problems so that the average American viewer doesn’t develop an inferiority complex. That’s why we have big budget movies about John Nash and Bobby Fischer (who struggled with social isolation and mental illness) but not about Einstein (who struggled with quantum theory and bad hair).
But why am I harping on about kuru? According to a recent article in Lancet, there have been only eleven identified cases of kuru between 1996 and 2004—all of them acquired (presumably) before Australian government cracked down on cannibalism in the 1950s. I bring it up because the case of kuru sets an interesting precedent for diet, law and disease prevention.
This July was the final deadline for the trans fat ban in New York City restaurants. Now all food service establishments in the city are forbidden from using cooking fats or spreads with more than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. When you think about it, this situation is not so different from the banning of cannibalism in New Guinea; both are government interventions that impact people’s eating habits and (hopefully) improve public health. Maybe my comparison is a bit far-fetched—but it still makes for great cocktail party conversation. (I mean, so I suspect—for some reason I never get invited to cocktail parties anymore.)single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.