From the pages of Mad Scientist ¥ Number 2.5, Spring 1999 (PO Box 4765, Clearwater, FL 33758; $8)
Excerpts from Science Run Amok? Time Travel--A Medical Nightmare?
By Dr. Robert Vanderwoude
Time travel, the perennial vehicle of so many science fiction stories, may one day become a reality. Imagine the moment as the first man or woman sits at the control panel of a Mark One Time Travel Device and faces the agonizing choice--past or future? Hopefully, someone will be on hand to shout "Don't touch that dial!" Will the operator listen? Let's pray that he or she does.
To explain why, we must (figuratively) travel back to 1969 when the U.S. surgeon general declared that it was "time to close the book on infectious disease." In that year of so much hope, when man walked on the moon, it appeared that the combination of vaccines and antibiotics had eliminated the scourge of transmissible disease. Horrific ailments that had afflicted humankind from the dawn of time--leprosy, tuberculosis, bubonic plague, cholera, yellow fever, etc.--seemed to be on the verge of extinction. Thirty years later, in 1999, other scientists have agreed that the war against infectious disease has been won...by the other side. Evolution, in the form of natural selection of pathogenic organisms, seems to possess the means of overcoming every protective chemical devised by human science.
What has happened? What does it have to do with time travel? To answer that question, one must look at the evolution of virulent microbes. We'll choose a common bacteria of the gut (and possible pathogen), E. coli, as our example. Evolution is based on mutation and selection of the fittest. A reproduction of E. coli, because of its rapid rate of reproduction, has as much chance for evolution in one day as humanity does in one thousand years. A small piece of raw hamburger usually contains many billions of bacteria, far more than the entire human population of our planet! In medicine, a type of E. coli causes significant disease. The frightful thing is that in less than fifty years, E. coli has developed resistance to most therapeutic agents.
Returning to our time traveler. For argument's sake, we will assume time travel becomes a reality in the year 2000. With eager hands the operator sets the dial to 2050 and starts the machine. One can only imagine what amazing sights will be seen. However, one can know for a certainty that even simple activities such as eating a meal, drinking water, or shaking hands will result in contamination with microbes that have evolved far in advance of anything found in the year 2000. Undoubtedly all E. coli found fifty years in the future will be resistant to everything presently in our antimicrobial arsenal. When the traveler returns to the present...
And what do you think happens when the time traveler goes back fifty years to 1950? The microflora carried in the digestive tract of our traveler will certainly be resistant to the antibiotic that saved so many lives in that time period (including my own grandfather)--streptomycin. One can only imagine the havoc and loss of life that would take place if antibiotic resistant bacteria suddenly turned up in 1950 and spread from person to person.
Now, imagine yourself walking in the park when the air suddenly shimmers and your nose wrinkles from the stench of ozone. A young woman in a crystalline machine appears and announces she is from the year 3000. She smiles brightly and extends her hand. Think twice before you shake...
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