Monday, September 7, 2015

Young reader, responding badly : why my book is really about the 1950s, though set in the 1940s...

After the end of WWII, some Big People began to write a self-congratulatory and dishonest 'La historia oficial' of wartime penicillin.

Other Big People, in government, media and in universities, read it and got it, totally.

And why not ? It certainly reflected their take on Reality.

So they spread the official version ever outward, out to the very ordinary public and even out to little children.

But most of us know how any story we tell can get distorted in the understanding of some who hear it - no matter how short and simple the story.

Academics have developed some quite elaborate theories to account for this : reader response , they call it.

My book is about how the official version story of penicillin quickly got badly distorted among a key audience : the baby boomers.

The visual imagery of the story of wartime penicillin has never changed in the seventy years from 1945 till today.

Always the same steady progress from early photos of young women, dressed like nursemaids, tenderly attending small milk bottles of some foul green mess to the final photos of middle aged men in white coats pensively turning knobs while glancing at dials, before massive arrays of heavily built, gleaming stainless steel or white painted chemical towers.

Indeed the photos of the outside of some of the 1945 era penicillin plants are totally indistinguishable from the many small oil refineries of that era.

Visit me some time and I'll test you on whether or not you can tell a small capacity 1945 oil refinery photo from a large capacity 1945 penicillin plant.

My bet is you'll get it wrong.

In fact, the inconvenient truth all those photos of massive man-made opaque production towers was designed to deny, was that the actual production of penicillin remained - unexpectedly - the same from start to finish.

Despite a multi-nation effort almost as big as the Manhattan atomic project, the smartest chemists in the Universe failed to produce any commercial penicillin and so inside 1945's big steel tanks were the same small microbes making penicillin just as they had inside 1940's small flasks and milk bottles.

And somehow we little people got it.

Despite the official story.

We got that creatures as small and as powerless as us, the bog common ordinary kitchen molds, were making the stuff that was saving so many of us baby baby boomers from the premature deaths our parents and grandparents had faced.

And that WWII wasn't just about Big Bombs from Big Civilizations but also about small lifesavers from small nature.

Even at age seven and eight, we were buying into the nascent idea that diversifying humanity's portfolio to include as much human and biological diversity from the small and powerless side of the world as possible was a very good thing indeed...

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