The Corner

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Coping with Plagues

A man runs past the funeral pyres of coronavirus victims during a mass cremation in New Delhi, India, April 26, 2021. (Adnan Abidi / Reuters)

Nicholas Christakis is a famed academic — to the extent that academics are famed. He was in the news in 2015, when he stood up to a student mob — literally and figuratively. He is a champion of free speech. And he is my guest on Q&A, here. Among our subjects is free speech, yes. Mainly, however, we talk about the plague: the epidemic that was inflicted on us more than a year ago. Professor Christakis has written a book on the subject.

Man, is he educated — with degrees from St. Alban’s, Yale, Harvard, Harvard again, and Penn. He has an M.D. from Harvard and a Ph.D. in sociology, from Penn.

Wait a minute: Medicine is hard — rigorous, scientific — while sociology is a joke, right? Akin to basket-weaving. Not necessarily, as Christakis explains in our podcast. In fact, not at all, when the discipline — truly, discipline — is done right.

Christakis has been a prof at Chicago, Harvard, and Yale. Today, he is Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale. He directs the university’s Human Nature Lab.

That’s a pretty big writ: human nature.

Christakis has now written Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live. In our podcast, he takes us through the opening of The Iliad, movingly.

The Achaean army is suffering from a plague, thanks to Apollo’s nasty arrows. Day and night, the funeral pyres burn.

Is not the same happening in India right this second?

Professor Christakis emphasizes that plagues are as old as man. They are new only to us, the living, and dying. Last year, I was talking with Mark Helprin, and wondering when the current plague would end. He reminded me that people used to speak of “the plague years” — plural. That was a sobering point.

Nicholas Christakis is a Greek American, who grew up in both countries. He speaks fluent Greek. His father — a nuclear physicist — lives in Crete (on Crete?). At the beginning of our podcast, Christakis talks about his family background, which is highly interesting.

He is a big brain, who has a big heart. You’ll love getting to know Nicholas Christakis. Again, here.

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