Ukraine, Cancer Vaccines, James Webb, Saturnalia

As I write this, the threat of nuclear attack is at its highest point since the fall of the Soviet Union. Europe is on the brink of war. A sovereign nation is being invaded. The specter of a new and involuntary Warsaw Pact, fueled by the ghost of the USSR, is shambling out of a Cold War grave.

My thoughts are with the people of Ukraine. With the citizens huddling in metro stations in grim echo of the Blitz. With the defenders of their homeland in the face of terror rolling through streets and raining down from the sky. And with the courageous Russian citizens who are protesting their government’s bloodthirst… knowing full well what it means to be arrested by that government.

As I’ve written previously, I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War. As a kid, I distinctly remember thinking that I’d never reach adulthood, because of the Soviet-U.S. showdown. A major submarine base was disconcertingly near to my hometown (and would surely be on the Kremlin’s nuclear hit-list). Movies like The Day After, Threads, and By Dawn’s Early Light kept me up at night. My daydreams were of fallout before there was Fallout.

History is always happening. Beyond the humanitarian crisis and Russia’s flagrant violation of international law and national sovereignty, there are real concerns that this attempt to rebuild a Soviet-style shield-wall against “the West” won’t stop with Ukraine. The precarious situation in the Black Sea can easily escalate into a shooting war with NATO. There are more than a dozen atomic reactors in Ukraine, requiring maintenance that an invasion is sure to disrupt. And Russia’s fondness for state-sponsored cyberwarfare could result in a devastating hack that would demand a full military retaliation.

We’re sitting on a powder keg, and any solution will be complicated.

As William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.”


Before the shadow of autocratic threat so openly fell across the world, I was intending on writing some hopeful things, because hopeful things are actually in the news, percolating in laboratories or glinting in outer space. So I’m going to hold that line for now.

Did you know that cancer vaccines are coming?

No, seriously. They’re already in Phase 2 trials.

When mRNA vaccines hit the scene in force, their sole focus was, unsurprisingly, addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet that’s merely the Iliad to a much grander Odyssey. The same principles behind the SARS-COV-2 mRNA vaccine are also laying the foundation for personalized cancer treatments. In the way that genetic information of a virus is used to train our immune systems for war against viral proteins, the genetic information of cancer cells (from tumors, for instance) can be used to help our immune systems attack the cancer itself.

The significance of this cannot be overstated. If successful, this will rank as one of the most impactful developments in the history of medicine. Preliminary data suggests it will also work for HIV, Ebola, Zika, and a vast spectrum of other illnesses.

And we’re in Phase 2 trials.

It warrants mentioning that we are also in human trials for a universal coronavirus vaccine… which will be our way out of this pandemic. Both UW-Madison and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research are testing a “pan-coronavirus vaccine” that covers a dazzling array of spike protein mutations. The intent is to essentially create a shield-wall that will stop anything we might see from this nasty viral family. Not a bad idea, considering that we’ve had three coronavirus outbreaks in the last 20 years (SARS, MERS, and now COVID).

I’ve seen what cancer can do. So have many of you. I held my Nana’s hand as she died in agony from cancer that destroyed her from the bones outward. Growing up in a large Italian family, I’ve watched it strike again and again, like the Reaper’s scythe. More than 9 million people die from cancer annually. As for Covid, 5.6 million people have died so far.

A new revolution in medicine is dawning, right now. We will have a cancer cure if we don’t have a nuclear war. We will have a universal coronavirus vaccine. This is happening.

On a similar note, as of this writing the James Webb Space Telescope is looking at a star 241 light years away as part of its warm-up cycle. On the backburner of the news, we’ve entered the prelude to the next 20 years of astrophysics.

To put this in perspective, we built a mirror as large as a stegosaurus, parked it 930,000 miles from Earth, and are using it to look backwards in time.

The telescope is protected by a sunshield consisting of five layers, each twice as long as a telephone pole, as expansive as a tennis court, and as thin as a human hair.

Thousands of experts from 15 different countries participated in its design and construction. It’s 100 times more powerful than Hubble, and after the warm-up, it will eventually peek at the beginning of the universe.

It cost two hundred times less than the Iraq War. It took as much time to develop and build as the Peloponnesian War; put another way, the same Greek city-states that were at war with each other 2,400 years ago are now one of the countries that helped put this telescope into space.

The telescope will peer into stellar nurseries and learn how stars are born. It will scan alien atmospheres for signs of life. It will examine the planets and moons of our own solar system, and shine a proverbial light on the mysterious edge. When Hubble launched, we had yet to confirm that exoplanets even existed; JWST is the next chapter in our epic tale of a species that came down from the trees and climbed up to the stars.


Earlier this month, in a desperate quest for optimism and getting 2022 off on the right track, my head was used to make a silicon mold for a statue of Saturn, the Roman God of Time.

Since many holidays were thwarted by Covid, Covid-scares, and life-threatening car accidents, my friends and I threw a Saturnalia party (even though the date was closer to Lupercalia). We don’t do things halfhearted: full Roman costumes, baking fresh bread (with a Pompeii-era recipe) and historically appropriate foods, libations, and music. Since the ancient Roman holiday historically featured a bust of the festival’s deity, my friends drafted me to serve as the model, a process that proved a suffocating three-and-a-half hours, but now we have a bust of Saturn, so… worth it.

May He look favorably upon the new year, for all of us, everywhere.

Keep the Saturn in Saturnalia

This entry was posted in Blog and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.