Two by Two

Two by Two

by Zach Marsh on Mar 13, 2020

Two by Two

Trigger Warning: Those who dislike math may find this letter unappealing.   I hope not, but I just wanted to put it out there. Do you like exponentials? What about power laws, do they get your motor running? Like ‘em or not, they can help shed light on statistical testing, bringing more clarity to the distribution of random events or processes. How are historical floods distributed on the Nile basin? Power law distribution. How are the frequency of words in a text distributed? Power law distribution. Population ranks of cities, wealth distribution, popularity of TV shows or Instagram influencers? Power laws. Spread of Covid-19?  Most likely a power law distribution, and definitely spread exponentially.

Initial reports estimate the spread of the virus, or R0 (“R-naught”), to be roughly two.  That means that for every person that catches the virus he or she is likely to spread it to two other people[1]: think of that as being x2. Let’s make a random estimate, completely random, and for theoretical purposes only, that it takes 5 days for that carrier to infect the 2 other people; after 30 instances of transmission, that’s running the process 30 times with 5 days between, or 150 days, the infected number would be expressed as: 230 .[2] The answer, by the way, is just over 1 billion people, or roughly 1/6 of the world’s population. Theoretically speaking, this is what the WHO and CDC are fighting. Power law distribution may make the infection rates higher in some places than in others, or unevenly distributed geographically, but this is a rough illustration of Covid-19’s speed and danger.

That’s the bad side of exponentials. There is a good side, too. The idea for this letter came to me after I read a story about scientists working with the world’s fastest computer, called Summit, to help combat the virus.[3] In the article it says that: “To infect cells, viruses bind to what’s called a ‘spike’ protein and inject their genetic material into host cells. However, if a particular drug compounds bind to the virus’ spike proteins, they could potentially block Covid-19 from infecting humans.” In pharmaceutical research much of the research is about running trials to find the right combination of variables that work to combat the disease.  This computer, Summit, greatly speeds up that process.  The article quotes IBM’s Vice President, Dave Turek, saying “if every person on Earth completed one calculation per second, it would take 305 days to do what Summit can do in 1 second!” If our enemy, Covid-19 is fast, then our ally, Summit, is fast as well. If it helps, and if you are of a similar generation as me, think of the final scene in the ‘80’s movie ‘Wargames,’ “Joshua” (the movie’s computer) is in a race against time before nuclear Armageddon. 

Recently, it’s been hard to be a fan of technology and the pharma industry.  From Facebook and Google constantly snooping on us, to what may seem like pricing abuse by drug companies; these two industries have been contributors to anxiety rather than harbingers of good stewardship. Now it seems as if our hope for a speedy end to this crisis is most likely going to come from these two industries. For me, I’m very encouraged that technology will get to the answer faster than Covid-19 can wreak serious damage. You see, technology has another power law in its favor as well. Once upon a time it took over 100 years for the sum of all human knowledge to double.  After WW2 that time decreased to every 25 years. Now it is estimated that the sum of all clinical knowledge doubles every 18 months. Frighteningly, maybe a topic for another time, IBM estimates that the “internet of things” will cause all human knowledge to double every 12 hours.[4]

We are fascinating creatures, we of the human race, capable of so much damage, yet so much ingenuity. Somehow, I imagine that out in space there is another intelligent life form watching us, through a telescope, marveling at how advanced we are yet how we struggle to put people in charge of government which reflect that advancement. Even there I’m hopeful, though, that progress will be made, someday.   






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[2] For those who like it spelled out: 2*2*2*2*2*2*2*2*2*2*2*2*2*2*2*2*2*2*2*2*2*2*2*2*2*2*2*2*2*2