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Size vs Severity

November 7, 2019

“You’re confusing size with severity. Those are two very different things.”

(An excerpt from the book, EnDvironment)

Dante nudged the thermometer downward to restore the line of sight between them, his dark eyes hard and fixed.

“John had a hunch about weight transfer, and how moving a lot of weight around might affect earthquakes. He studied all kinds of technology––mining, oil production, construction––and the massive amounts of weight that each industry moves. Maybe our moving so much weight from here to there could reach that certain ‘degree’ that affects balance…” Dante borrowed the thermometer from Jonathan’s hand, and tapped his finger at the end of the red line, “…like this thirty-two degree mark that no one used to know about … could there be a ‘degree,’ a natural line of departure that would change the entire Earth?”

Jonathan felt a smirk lift one side of his face. “Really? Like what, the mother-of-all earthquakes, or something like that?”

Dante nodded. He placed the thermometer on the table between them.

“But Dante,” Jonathan shook his head and flung his arms out, “the earth is so huge!” He lowered his arms and clenched the edge of the table. Crazy stuff. He leaned back. “Okay, we have some new high-tech gadgets––but nothing we do would change the whole Earth!” He picked up the thermometer, and looked at it, turning it over and over then tapped it against his palm. “Too bad Grandpa isn’t around now to see that NASA photo of Earth. It’s big.”

Dante sighed. “Yes, you could say the Earth is big.” Wandering fingers reached into his right shirt pocket, searching for something. “Think of it this way––you’re a big fellow, probably weigh 220 pounds and that bottle of beer holds 12 ounces of liquid, and this…” Dante’s fingers switched to his left shirt pocket and pulled out a tiny vial of fluid, “…this vial is a lot bigger than just one drop of what’s inside it.”

Dante handed the vial to him. It was about the size of Andrea’s tiny finger. The fluid looked mostly clear, maybe a little amber-colored.

“So, what’s this?”

“Liquid arsenic.” Dante scooted Jonathan’s beer bottle toward him. “Put a drop, just one tiny drop, of that arsenic in your beer. Swish it a little to dilute the arsenic. Then take just one tiny sip of your beer and swallow it. Let that little sip of diluted arsenic wander around your 200 pound body.” A dagger gleamed in his voice, cutting narrow slits through his eyelids. “Let’s just see what happens.”

“Dante, you’re either nuts, or it’s some kind of trick!” He set the vial down in the middle of the table. No way. More crazy stuff and–– “Wait a minute, Dante. It’s not really arsenic, is it?” More illusions. “So, what is it, really?”

“Arsenic. I sprinkle some on the rabbit pellets I put out to control the mice. They eat the rabbit food and …” he snapped his fingers, picked up the vial and rolled it between his fingers. “… fewer mice.”

“I don’t believe you. Put some in your own beer. Let’s see you do that!”

“All right.” Dante opened the vial, nursed a single drop letting it fall into his bottle, closed the vial, swished the concoction and raised the bottle. “Cheers, Jonathan.” Not just a sip. He took a long drink. Jonathan lost count of how many swallows. With a small burp, Dante set the bottle back on the table, held his arms out to his sides and gave a slight shrug as if nothing had happened.

“If it’s real, you wouldn’t have done that.” Another trick. Another lie.

“Well,” he burped again, followed with a half smile, “it is real arsenic, Jonathan. But I know the difference between a little poison, and a lot of poison. Since you refused my little challenge, I’d say that you don’t really know what’s ‘big’, what’s ‘small’, which actions have no consequence, and which ones do. Big? Small?” Dante shook his head. “You’re confusing size with severity. Those are two very different things.”

Two different things, huh? Jonathan’s left hand pressed across his lips, trying to release the right words. “Look, Dante. There’s smart and dumb, too. I did the smart thing by not doing it. If it’s really arsenic and it didn’t kill me, it could make me sick, or—”

“Sick? Oh, that’s right. Sickness. Like the disruption to our health that a tiny virus or bacteria can cause in these big huge bodies.” Dante pointed to himself and to Jonathan. “Sick, from all those teeny tiny microscopic aliens we didn’t know we shared Earth with, until just a hundred years ago. Tiny things, huh? Too small to see with the naked eye––but strong enough to kill you, me and a million others. That kind of sick?”

Dante slowed. “Think about it. Maybe it is possible for something very small to affect something very big. How about a mosquito? Just this big.” He pinched a bit of air between thumb and forefinger. “One little bite, and big guys like you or me get malaria and die! Does the mosquito kill us? No, mosquitoes aren’t poisonous. They have no venom. But mosquitoes are huge things compared to the tiny parasites they deliver—microscopic single-cell parasites that make a home in your liver, for starters. Size doesn’t always relate to severity.”

Jonathan could feel his jaw tighten. Size, severity. Okay, but this was still––

Dante rubbed hands together as if he was washing them. “How about plain old germs? In the 1930’s, surgeons argued about whether or not they should wash their hands between surgeries. Hey, they were smart intelligent people. College educated. Not stupid. But they were ignorant of facts yet to be learned. One surgeon, who did wash his hands, noticed that his patients did better and tells other doctors. Did that change their minds? No. Other surgeons, who had passed tough medical exams of their day, didn’t believe it. They said washing hands is a big waste of time! And they even smoked during surgery! Here nurse, hold my cigarette and pass me that scalpel.” Dante took a puff on a make-believe cigarette.

Jonathan chuckled. “Yeah, seems pretty dumb these days.”

Dante nodded. “Finally, with enough facts, surgeons stopped arguing about whether or not to wash hands.” He leaned forward. “Did these surgeons get smarter? No, they simply learned that size doesn’t always relate to severity. They learned how tiny life forms, unseen, can damage the health of a big, huge patient.” He leaned back, resting one hand over the other on the table. “Doctors had practiced healing for thousands of years, completely ignorant of one of the most important ways to help their patients heal––until just 50 years ago. So now it’s in the books. Everyone agrees. Now, do they know it all? Or do you think there’s more for them to learn?”

Jonathan shrugged. “I’ve heard medical people say there’s more to learn. Always more to learn, I guess.” Although Linda, being a nurse, seemed to know it all. Still wasn’t going swallow arsenic.

Dante eyes roamed his, looking for something. “Do a majority of people have to agree for a thing to be true? Or is a thing true, regardless of how many people agree about it?”

Jonathan took his time. Don’t get sucker punched. “Well, if something’s true, it’s true. What people think about it … doesn’t really matter.”

“Hmm,” Dante gave a slight nod, picked up the vial and studied it between his fingers. “Scientists have studied the lethal qualities of this natural poison.” Dante gave a quick glance to him. “Arsenic is odorless, tasteless, and there’s a tiny dose that won’t hurt most people. But there is a point––combine enough tiny droplets, and this will kill. So you see, Jonathan, something small can affect something big.

Dante offered the vial to him. “Go ahead.”

No way. Jonathan leaned back, away from the poison in Dante’s hand. “Okay, Dante, okay. You made your point.”

Dante hesitated. “Here’s something else to think about, Jonathan. When you went out to your car earlier … well … you don’t really know whether or not I had already put a drop in your beer, do you?”

A hammer-like thud echoed in his head and the room spun. Dante was a lunatic. Why had he stayed? He sprung out of his chair but sudden dizziness tried to rock him off his feet. Jonathan grabbed the back of his chair to steady himself, waiting for the worst. Would he see his kids again? The dizziness passed. He caught his breath through the parade of  heart beats against his chest. Was this just fear? Or arsenic?

Dante started to chuckle. Soon he laughed out loud and pointed. “Son, sit … down….” Laughter sprouted between his words. “Please, sit … I’d never poison John’s grandson … I wouldn’t poison you …” Fingertips fluttered downward, motioning for Jonathan to sit.

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