Perhaps the biggest reason the Parallax Machine exists is that while so many of us want everything to be black and white, most things are some shade of gray.
To its very core, our world is governed not by certainty, but by probability. We want our weather forecast to tell us if it will rain. But the best we can get is the percent chance it will rain. Why? Many reasons. For one, the atmosphere is huge, composed of an unthinkable number of atoms and molecules, all traveling at incredible speeds, with every collision transferring energy. Add that all up to the scale at which we perceive things, and you get an enormous number of possibilities. From the standpoint of classical physics – the kind that guided science until the early 20th century – if we could somehow measure where every atom and molecule was located, where it was headed, and how fast it was moving, and if we had time to make all the calculations, we could perfectly predict the weather at any point in the future.
But there are problems with that dream. First, we don’t have the means of measuring all those things, much less at the same moment in time. Second, we don’t have the time to make all the calculations. Halfway through the 20th century, we started building machines that led to today’s ultra-powerful computers – but even now, we barely have machines that can even keep track of kilometer-sized chunks of the atmosphere for global weather modeling purposes. Getting more detailed than that would take longer than the weather itself takes. That leaves plenty of room for errors in our calculations to creep in over time, which is why the farther the forecast goes, the less accurate it becomes. But it’s getting better as we learn more and throw bigger computers at it. Could be worse.
To quote Han Solo, it’s worse. In the early 20th century, we began to learn about quantum mechanics, which dictates uncertainty at the smallest scales of reality. Not only is it impractical to measure the precise location and velocity of a subatomic particle, it is *impossible*. And even if we could, it seems that reality itself is guided by probabilities, meaning if you could nail down a subatomic particle, you *still* wouldn’t be able to predict with certainty what it will do next. In fact, everything we understand about physics today tells us that subatomic particles are routinely created and destroyed out of nothing more than the fabric of space itself. In this face of this chaos, Einstein once stated “God doesn’t play dice”. It would appear that not only does God play dice, but the dice can change into different shapes from one roll to the next.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that most things in life are ultimately devoid of certainty. Let’s dig a little deeper into how probability and uncertainty impact us in our daily lives, going back to the weather example. If there is a forecast of a 10% chance of rain, you will likely venture out into the world, and also likely not even bother carrying an umbrella. Whether you knew it or not, you have conducted your own form of risk management, determining that you’d rather not be hassled with carrying an umbrella, because there is a 90% chance it won’t even rain, and even if it does rain, the worst that can happen is you’ll get wet. It’s also very important to note that even if you do carry an umbrella, it won’t completely prevent you from getting wet. No umbrella can protect your entire body in every direction. But you will get less wet. Bringing an umbrella makes the most likely worst case scenario better: a little damp instead of drenched. Of course, there is a very small chance it will rain so hard, which often comes with a fair amount of wind, that your umbrella will fall apart and you’ll get drenched anyway.
Now let’s replace rain with the COVID-19 virus, and the umbrella with the COVID-19 vaccine. It is difficult to say what chance you have of encountering the virus on any given day. But let’s go ahead and say it’s 10% for the sake of discussion. Now your risk management scenario is a little different. Instead of risking getting wet, you’re risking getting sick. Instead of the hassle of carrying an umbrella, you’re dealing with the hassle of getting pricked in the arm once or twice. The antivax monster will also say you’re at risk of all kind of horrific side effects, but from what the scientific data indicate thus far, the side effects are pretty rare, especially for adults. And the worst case scenario of not getting the vaccine is bit more alarming than the worst case scenario of not carrying an umbrella; you’re not at risk of getting drenched – you’re at risk of getting dead. Similarly to an umbrella with the rain, the vaccine will not prevent you from getting sick – if you are exposed to someone carrying the virus for a sufficient amount of time, it will likely enter your body even if you’re vaccinated. But the overwhelming odds are that you will only get a little sick if you are vaccinated. And just like with the umbrella in a torrential downpour, there is a very small chance the virus will get you very sick and even kill you, even if you are vaccinated. If you are immunocompromised, your “umbrella” essentially has a bunch of holes in it.
The importance of the points in that last paragraph really can’t be overstated. Unvaccinated people are unquestionably far more likely to get sick, severely ill, and killed by the virus – so there’s a pretty damned good and perfectly selfish reason for unvaccinated people to become vaccinated people. But when an unvaccinated person gets sick, they can still transmit it to a vaccinated person, and there is a chance that vaccinated person could become seriously ill or even die, and that chance is much larger if that vaccinated person is immunocompromised – a slightly more selfless reason to get vaccinated. With even broader effect, every unvaccinated person is putting every other unvaccinated person at extreme risk. The upshot of all this: the narrative that vaccinated people should stop worrying about unvaccinated people falls apart in light of these basic truths.
And then there’s the things the virus can do that the rain cannot. Rain will always be rain, from one day to the next. Although “acid rain” is a real thing, for the most part, rain will not be water today and suddenly hydrochloric acid tomorrow. If it could, it would make the worst case scenario of not having an umbrella much worse. But a virus *can* do precisely that – it simply needs more time and numbers to mutate into something worse. Viruses have been doing this since they first showed up on Earth, and the COVID-19 virus is no different. Why are all these variants popping up? Because the world is giving the virus time and resources (people) in which to experiment with countless new mutations. Unvaccinated people are massive potential laboratories for this experimentation. Vaccinated people much less so, but their bodies still need to raise the defenses to stave off the virus when it arrives, and before that has occurred, the virus has time to do more experimentation even in their bodies.
It all adds up: unvaccinated people get sick, giving the virus a playground for evolving newer forms, some of which might end up being more transmissible, and some of which might end up being more resistant to the vaccine. So now you’ve got unvaccinated people spreading even more of the virus to unvaccinated and vaccinated people alike, giving it even more time to make even further advancements in this never-ending war, and positioning it to make vaccinated people even bigger laboratories for evolving new forms. The more people remain unvaccinated, the bigger the chance the virus will stumble on a new form that puts us all back at March 2020. Or worse.
We are here on this planet because the universe has given Earth four billion years to evolve life through mutations into all the living wonders we see around us today. How sadly ironic it is that many of us will leave this planet because the unvaccinated among us afforded the same luxury to some virus, all while having the technology within easy reach to prevent it. I’ve had more difficulty opening some umbrellas.