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Pandemic Lessons, Generation Gaps, and Wordplay: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week

From finding new heroes to reconnecting with language, we learned a lot over the last seven days

We’re living in a world awash with content—from must-read articles and binge-worthy shows to epic tweetstorms and viral TikToks and all sorts of clickbait in between. The Elective is here to help cut through the noise. Each week, members of the Elective team share the books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and experiences that not only made them smarter but also changed how they see the world around them and, often, how they see themselves.

Three people sitting, all wearing masks. A man on the left, a woman in the middle getting a shot, and a nurse of the right administering the shot.

Penn Medicine News

In this photo, from December 18, 2020, Dr. Katalin Kariko receives her first shot of the Pfizer/BioNTech covid-19 vaccine—developed thanks in large part to Dr. Kariko's pioneering research. Her research partner, Dr. Drew Weissman, sits to her left.

Heroes of the Pandemic

There’s a stretch of Broadway that runs through Lower Manhattan known as the Canyon of Heroes. If you’ve ever seen a ticker-tape parade—of the Apollo 11 astronauts waving to crowds, say, or the 2015 U.S. women’s soccer team celebrating its World Cup win—it most likely occurred in the Canyon of Heroes. Being New York, these parades are big: lots of people, lots of confetti, lots of excitement. Later, after the cleanup, a record of the parade gets set into the sidewalks that run through the Canyon of Heroes. When it’s safe to have parades again, the first one thrown should run through the Canyon of Heroes to celebrate the doctors and scientists whose research—often against the grain of their profession, and against steep odds of success—helped end the covid-19 pandemic. Dr. Anthony Fauci, certainly, but also people like Dr. Barney S. Graham and Dr. Jason McLellan, who designed the modified protein that led to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and were profiled by Lawrence Wright in the essential and Hiroshima-like New Yorker piece, “The Plague Year.” And people Dr. Ugur Sahin and Dr. Özlem Türeci, whose company BioNTech partnered with Pfizer to make the vaccine a reality. And people like Dr. Katalin Kariko.

Dr. Karino, along with Dr. Drew Weissman at the University of Pennsylvania, pioneered mRNA breakthroughs that led to the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. A New York Times profile published last week threw some well earned spotlight on Dr. Kariko, a Hungarian immigrant who spent her career bouncing between labs and never earning more than $60,000 a year as she worked to unlock the potential of messenger RNA to treat and prevent illnesses. Her story is the epitome of the American dream—"She grew up in Hungary, daughter of a butcher," Gina Kolata writes. "She decided she wanted to be a scientist, although she had never met one."—and the perils of a market-driven American medical system—"She moved to the United States in her 20s, but for decades never found a permanent position, instead clinging to the fringes of academia." Why? Because no one saw the immediate return in her mRNA research, Dr. Kariko struggled to find funding and grants that would unlock permanent lab positions. But her gumption and self-confidence kept her working, kept her researching, and kept her finding new ways forward when hitting a dead end. “Working with her, [neurosurgeon Dr. David Langer] realized that one key to real scientific understanding is to design experiments that always tell you something, even if it is something you don’t want to hear.” That’s a lesson that should resonate with all of us, along with her tenacity. It helped lay the scientific foundation for vaccines that will save countless lives—from covid-19, as well as other diseases, like HIV, that could be attacked with mRNA—and earned Dr. Kariko a place alongside Jonas Salk in the story of American medicine. After decades of researching at the margins, she learned on November 8, 2020, that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine worked. “To celebrate, she ate an entire box of Goobers chocolate-covered peanuts. By herself.” Hero scientists—they’re just like us! —Dante A. Ciampaglia

Photo of a two women sitting on a park bench talking

Mayur Kakade/Getty Images

Remember when we get get together and talk? And how all that small-talk pablum could feel really tedious? Let's never take any of that for granted again.

Small Talk is a Big Deal

Small talk is a big deal. It often gets dismissed as pointless filler, but all kinds of research confirms that the little pleasantries and banal exchanges of small talk—“How’s it going? Was traffic bad? What’s new?”—play an outsized role in keeping us connected. “Social scientists refer to this type of speech as phatic communication,” reports Ian Bogost in The Atlantic. “Phatic speech is the linguistic glue that holds our interactions together. And the pandemic has utterly broken it, making social interactions even more exhausting.” We’ve endured a year of awkward screen time, when “You’re on mute!” became the most common greeting in America. Regular small talk felt weird and inadequate at a time when so many people were genuinely scared or suffering. Far from being a harmless toss-off, “How are you?” suddenly became a fraught, almost existential question. Now that the pandemic is receding and people are getting vaccinated, we’re reemerging into the world of casual social pleasantries, trying to remember how to be a normal human in normal spaces. For me, after a lifetime of conferences and dinners and staff meetings full of mundane chatter, getting back in the habit has taken some work. “Small talk’s use in social bonding is returning,” says Bogost. “‘Which vaccine did you get?’ has become a low-stakes way to move from phatic communion to small talk to business.” And a lovely way of acknowledging that our long ordeal may finally, finally be coming to an end. —Stefanie Sanford

Illustration of a young man, from the shoulders up, eyes closed and smirking, holding his hands up as a rainbow runs from one hand to the other with the words OK BOOMER placed over the rainbow

Amarit Opassetthakul/Getty Images

No caption necessary, but so help us if this guy is Gen Z and not a millennial...

Busting Boomers

Did the Baby Boomers liberate the world or break it? Do they represent a giant leap forward for tolerance and civil rights or a catastrophe for the climate and the economy? All of the above, it seems. “There’s not just one critique of Boomers,” the New York Times’ Ezra Klein says in introducing a surprisingly intense debate on his podcast last week. “There’s a left critique that’s more about economics and power, and then a right critique that, at least usually, is more about cultural libertinism and individualism and institutional decay. So I wanted to put these critiques together to see if they added up to something coherent.” He brings together two cultural critics who come at the Boomer question from very different angles. Helen Andrews, representing the right, does not mince words in her diagnosis of Boomers as having abandoned the working class and created a dumber culture, while Jill Filipovic. from the left, says they weakened trust in government and failed to invest in future generations. In this long exchange, they touch on everything from family structure to political parties to information technology. “The Baby Boomers were the generation, the first generation to be raised by their TVs and to have their minds shaped by visual media, rather than text,” Andrews says at one point. “Television reduces people’s attention spans. It has an intrinsic bias towards flash over substance. So, basically, anything that people are trying to think critically about. If the information that’s in their minds is information that they got through TV, it’s going to be data of a very superficial kind.”
I’ve known Andrews since high school—go, Enloe Eagles!—and she’s been exactly this brilliant and contrarian since she was 15. There’s something enormously fun about hearing a voice you remember from AP English class making sharp arguments on a New York Times podcast. Keep an eye on your classmates, and stay in touch. You never know where they might turn up. —Eric Johnson

An open book with words and letters falling out of it

Cavan Images/Getty Images

A visual representation of how the state of language can feel during the pandemic.

Sticks and Stones May Yadda Yadda Yadda Words Actually Matter

The pandemic has caused a lot of us to rethink not only our day-to-day lives: where we work, live, shop, and eat; how we interact with friends, family, strangers; our place in the community, be it local, national, or global. Everything seems up for reconsideration—including language. As an editor I live and die by words and the precision of usage, which means the Associated Press Stylebook is a constant companion and indispensable resource. That has been especially true in the last year as new words and terms entered our everyday vernacular and others found their meanings shifting. The AP Stylebook's topical guides, especially the one focused on the coronavirus, have been vital for us ink-stained wretches to ensure we're on the right side of things. So it was with nerd glee that I dove into Poynter's piece about how the topicals are generated and the experience of working on the coronavirus guide. “The science of it is very complicated, so we need to make a balance between being very accurate and precise scientifically versus laying that out in language that regular people can understand,” AP Stylebook editor Paula Froke said. It's not often we get a peek behind the Stylebook curtain, and I would've been content with that lone conversation about our words. It turned out, though, that this was a banner week for reconsidering what we say and how we say it.

The Marshall Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization focused on the U.S. criminal justice system, released an update to its stylebook related to words its journalists use, and avoid, in their reporting. "Reporters, editors and criminal justice professionals have long assumed that terms such as “inmate,” “felon” and “offender” are clear, succinct and neutral," Akiba Solomon writes. "Through our continued engagement with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated readers, we have come to understand that these descriptors are not neutral." It's a fascinating document that will rewire how you think about and use words like "inmate," "convict," and "felon." A similar conversation is happening among the volunteers of the Internet Engineering Task Force, who are wrestling with offensive language embedded in computing—"master," "slave," "blacklist"—and what to do about it. Turns out it's no easy thing to extricate language with centuries of meaning used causally in creating the infrastructure of the modern world. And then there's how we talk about artificial intelligence—a segment of computing going through a very public fight over the ethics guiding the field—to prevent ourselves from further coding our technology, especially machine learning, in racism and misogyny. And lest anyone think this is all much ado about nothing—wrong. How we speak and the words we use matter. A lot. As the Marshall Project's Akiba Solomon writes, "the language we use has outsized power over the people we cover." It also has outsized power over the people who wield and the communities they live in. Precision counts in language. But so does empathy. —Dante A. Ciampaglia 

Toddler smiling while wearing traditional Inuit clothing and being carried on its mom's back

RyersonClark/Getty Images

We should all be as happy as the child in this photo. (Good job, Mom!)

Paleo Parenting

Before we had our first child, my wife bought and read a stack of parenting books that stood so high we actually used it as a side table for a while. I got to hear the highlights from Bringing Up Bébé, about raising kids the French way; The Danish Way of Parenting which promised happy and confident kids; and There’s No Such Thing As Bad Weather, describing how Scandinavian parents boot their little darlings outside for self-guided adventures even in arctic conditions. It wasn’t totally clear to me how all of this was going to apply in our North Carolina college town, but it did help us think about all the ways standard American parenting is weird.
Michaeleen Doucleff has taken that idea a great leap further with Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans. A science reporter for NPR, Douchleff brings her toddler along to learn child-raising practices from the Mayans, Inuits, and Hadzabe—none of whom have stacks of parenting books teetering next to their bedsides. “Parenting advice today has one major problem,” Doucleff writes, severely undercounting the major problems. “The vast majority of it comes solely from the Euro-American perspective.” Her book details all the ways that perspective is warped and world-historically strange, treating children as a separate category of human instead of letting them figure out the real world from very young ages. “Our culture often has things backwards when it comes to kids,” she writes. “We interfere too much. We don’t have enough confidence in our children.” It’s a book-length lesson in giving up some control—giving up a focus on control in the first place—to let childhood unfold on its own. Easier written than done, but I’m glad to give it a try. —Eric Johnson