The latest film in Dan Brown's thrilling Robert Langdon series, Inferno, is out today, and while I looked at the previous films in the series with passing interest, the premise of this one really grabbed my attention. Not only does the film make reference to one of the most famous epic poems in history, but the concepts behind the film rely heavily on science and epidemiology.
The title of film, and the novel it's based on, refers to Dante's Inferno, an epic poem about Hell. In the film, Robert Langdon must follow clues that relate to this poem in order to save humanity.
"Dante invented our modern conception of Hell," says film producer Brian Grazer. "In the book, Dante witnesses sinners on Earth punished by poetic justice. That becomes the basis of the puzzles Langdon has to solve in this movie. Dante described Hell; the painter Boticelli visualized Hell; but only Robert Langdon, the symbologist, can prevent Hell on Earth by stopping the release of a deadly virus."
The motivation of the antagonist of the film is clear. He wants to stop the problem of overpopulation on Earth, he wants people to stop people from using the planet's resources beyond its capabilities, so he's going to put an end to it himself. He's going to create a deadly virus that will kill billions of people. It's up to Robert Langdon to solve puzzles using clues from Dante's Inferno to prevent this.
This seems like it would make an awesome movie, and did make a bestselling novel. Millions of people have enjoyed solving puzzles alongside Langdon as he races against the clock and around the world to find clues. But, scientifically speaking, how plausible is the concept behind Inferno?
Now, before I get into the pedantics, I'd like to note that it was very important to both director Ron Howard and screenwriter David Koepp that they get things right, especially concerning the aspect of overpopulation. They worked extremely hard to make the antagonist of the film, a bioengineer named Bertand Zobrist, believable and, while a bit insane, they wanted him to be methodical and convincing. You can't do this with shady science and statistics. So the numbers that are reported in the movie as far as overpopulation statistics were painstakingly collected and are accurate. It then fell to the writers and movie production crew to come up with a way for this methodical mad scientist to take care of overpopulation in a thrilling way that would keep readers and movie-lovers on the edge of their seats. Not always an easy task. Thankfully, there are some awesome scientists out there who are willing to share their expertise!
Yesterday I had the great opportunity to talk to Alexei Aravin, a biologist from California Institute of Technology, about some of the science behind the movie, and how things like that would work in real life. Are bioweapons something we need to be concerned about in the real world?
According to Aravin, the answer is both yes and no.
In Inferno, we have a madman who happens to have both the education and resources to work with viruses. Aravin said there are no known viruses that would behave quite the way that Zobrist's virus works, but we can assume that Zobrist is crazy and smart enough to modify something heavily enough so that it works--in the movie.
According to Dr. Aravin, after a virus is developed (and there is, as I said, no known virus that would be able to do what Zobrist wants it to do in the film--any virus would have to be heavily modified), there would be a couple major problems a madman (or, say, a country who wants to attack another, or a terrorist group, etc) would have to overcome before he was able to infect the world with a massive virus.
The first, in relation to the film, is that it's super unlikely that one person could pull off a plan like this on his own. While Dr. Aravin has seen the film, I haven't, so I don't know exactly how Zobrist tries to accomplish this (and I wouldn't say if I did, because SPOILERS, SWEETY!), but one madman trying to infect millions of people with a targeted virus would be extremely difficult when you take into account the way viruses behave. There would need to be methods of production, testing, transport, planning, and detonation. One man couldn't realistically coordinate all this. There would need to be a coordinated group of crazy people to carry out this crazy plan. "And hopefully there are not enough crazy people in the world," Aravin says, to make this a reality. While there are a lot of nuts out there, they would all have to be united under the same goal, have knowledge of viruses, and have resources available to them. All of these things combined make it highly unlikely that this sort of operation would remain covert long enough to be carried out without something leaking. And they would need to keep it quiet for some time, because of the second problem with using a virus to wipe out any one section of the population.
Using a biological weapon in a calculated, targeted way is much different, from, say, using a nuclear bomb. Both have to be tested extensively to know if they will work. But with a nuke, you can test its destructive capabilities without killing anyone. You can take it out to an unpopulated area where it can stay a relative secret and see if it blows stuff up. With a virus, however, things get a bit more tricky.
The question that needs to be asked when designing targeted viruses, Dr. Aravin says, is, "How would it really behave?" Viruses, like nukes, would have to be tested in order to know their exact effects. And yes, they can be tested on animals, but every creature reacts to viruses differently. Something could kill a monkey but would not be exactly right to have the same effect on a person. In order to test how a virus would behave in a human, it would have to be tested on a human. And not just on one human, but on many, to ensure, again, the weapon has its desired effect. Not everyone reacts to viruses in the same way. The likelihood that this would go unnoticed in real life is very slim. It could work in the short term, but the length of time it would take for the virus to be developed, and then tested, and then even delivered, not to mention the time it would take to actually infect enough people to be effective, would make a secret operation impossible. Using a virus would probably be one of the least efficient ways to wipe out the majority of the human race there is.
Another major problem with using bioweapons and targeted viruses as a way to attack your enemies, Aravin says, is this: "You want to make sure it won't kill your own people instead of the enemy." It's kind of hard to celebrate a victory against your enemy when your own side has been wiped out as well. Any virus that can attack one group of people would attack all people. It would be very hard to keep that contained. There could be a vaccine against the virus, but this adds another layer of complications to an already overly complicated plan. You'd have to vaccinate all the people you want to save. The more people who know that the plan involves a virus means there is a highly likelihood that the plan will be leaked, even in an accidental way. "Everyone at school got a shot today for some reason!" is not exactly going to go unnoticed. And once a vaccine exists, it means a countermeasure exists. People could get vaccinated as fast as the virus spreads, making its impact far less than "ideal," in a terrorist's mind.
So while this idea of bioweapons is awesome in fiction, it's not very likely to happen in fact, according to Dr. Alexei Aravin. While there are crazy people out there with agendas and with resources and knowledge, all the factors together would make using a virus to carry out someone's dirty work extremely unlikely.
We do live in a scary world, and as we discover more and more things, it can get even scarier. There are groups of people out there who wish harm on others, and who do harm them. But for right now, we can go to the movies this weekend to watch Inferno with the comforting knowledge that we can enjoy its thrills and mysteries without the worry that we're catching much worse than the flu from sitting in that theater with dozens of other people...coughing...sneezing...And I'm actually really excited to find out how Robert Langdon figures all this out!
A big thank you to Dr. Alexei Aravin for taking the time away from his busy schedule at CIT to talk to me yesterday! Scientists truly are my rock stars, and even in the short time we talked, I learned a lot! I asked Dr. Aravin what made him "geek out" recently in movies and books, and he said that the movie Interstellar gave him a lot to think about, with its very interesting physics.
Readers, you can catch the latest thrilling installment in Dan Brown's Robert Langdon series in theaters everywhere today! Tom Hanks portrays the famous symbolist, who wakes up in an Italian hospital with amnesia. He teams up with doctor Sienna Brooks (played by Felicity Jones), whom he hopes can help him recover his memories. Together, they race across Europe and against the clock to stop a madman from unleashing a global virus that would wipe out half of the world's population. Inferno is directed by Ron Howard and produced by Brian Grazer.
Melanie R. Meadors is an author and editor of science fiction and fantasy, blogger at The Once and Future Podcast, and a professional author publicist. She studied physics and astronomy at Northern Arizona University, where no day was complete without a heated debate over relativity versus quantum mechanics. You can find her at her website, melaniermeadors.com, on Facebook, and Twitter, @melaniermeadors.