Today I was waiting in line at the pharmacy. They had a sign advertising vaccinations- whooping cough, meningitis- and it hooked me back onto a long train of thought I had yesterday.
There have been two viral diseases that have been eradicated. Smallpox was last observed in the mid-to-late 70s, and the WHO proclaimed it eradicated in May 1980. Thirty years later, rinderpest, which has been a serious threat to cattle, was gone. Polio continues to persist in a few small regions of the world, but in 2012 had less than a thousand reported cases. Guinea worm disease eradication, led by the Carter Center, is almost entirely confined to South Sudan. Former President Jimmy Carter, 88, stated last year “My goal now is to outlive the parasite.”
When you think about huge, famous diseases, the idea that they can be eliminated across the entire Earth is, to say the least, impressive. So the question I had then is- what’s the most impressive thing humankind has ever achieved?
The eradication of smallpox is stunning for simply how deadly it was throughout human history. The Antonine Plague which was one of the most important epidemics in European history, led to the depopulation and crisis of the 2nd and 3rd century Roman Empire.
Outside of medicine, the Moon landing is comparable in that living people had seen the entire history of powered flight. The gap between the Wright Flyer and Apollo 11 is about 66 years- so many people in their eighties had clear memories of both. Voyager 1, launched during the Disco Era, is close to leaving the Solar System entirely. The enemy powers of the most destructive war in history are now in some of the closest political and economic unions at present. A massive particle accelerator, decades in the making, found evidence of a boson that gives particles mass.
It’s interesting to think about what achievement is the most jaw-dropping, the sort of thing that you have to periodically remind yourself actually happened.