Science Wednesday: Sometimes, You Need Gin to Spell Synergy

Hepburn and Bogart delivered more than the sum of their talents in "The African Queen" -- so must the stakeholders in VECNet, to conquer malaria.

I’m just gonna fess up and admit that the story I’ve been telling the PSC VECNet Cyber-Infrastructure crew is probably a myth. Director John Huston and Humphrey Bogart probably didn’t stave off malaria while filming “The African Queen” on location in Uganda and the Congo by keeping themselves blotted on gin and tonic.

It has some verisimilitude. Bogart and Huston, famous drinkers, did avoid contracting the disease. And tonic water contains quinine, the world’s first effective pharmaceutical malaria preventive.*

But the story falls apart on closer examination. Bogart, Wikipedia tells us, credited dodging the dysentery bullet to “the large supply of whiskey he had brought along with him.” Anjelica Huston, too, quoted them as drinking Scotch, not G&Ts: “Whenever a fly bit Huston or me, it dropped dead,” Bogart later told her.

Never mind all that. The more interesting part of the story, at least from the point of view of VECNet and its CI project, is that the incomparable Katherine Hepburn, disgusted by the boys’ functional alcoholism, eschewed the booze for local water — and came down with dysentery as a reward for her virtue.

Hepburn and Huston didn’t get each other at first. Vastly different people, these two geniuses needed some time to work around their different ways of looking at the world, of working. It’s our gain that they stuck it out; the combination of their talents produced something epic, vastly greater than its already considerable sum.

So, too, VECNet. What our PI, Nathan Stone, and collaborator Greg Madey, PI at the University of Notre Dame, are aiming for is nothing less than a plug-and-play simulator that allows people with minimal IT training to ask the question, “What happens to malaria incidence if I do X?” and get a statistically valid answer. One of high enough quality to make real-life decisions on what research to conduct, which products to develop, what policies to adopt, and whose projects to fund. And, importantly, to identify which other VECNet users have other pieces of the puzzle, spurring collaborations.

“The larger VECNet community has been at it for over three years now, assembling some of the necessary models and data,” Nathan tells me. “This year’s challenge is all about integration and execution — like assembling a race car with parts from two Humvees and a bus so that any cabbie could use it to win the Indy 500.”

It’s audacious. It’s promising as all hell. And it’s going to take input from people who see the world — and how to attack the problem — very differently:

  • Scientists, famous for not wanting to take a step without the other foot firmly planted, will need to see the project as built on solid scientific footing, with transparency as a chief goal.
  • Engineers, who tend to view the world in terms of what the product does rather than the process of building it, will want to see a system that above all works.
  • Corporate researchers will need to have their proprietary ideas guarded, so that they can reap the fruits of their R&D labors.
  • Government officials will need answers that are both economically feasible and politically doable in the context of their own systems of governance.

I don’t think I’m giving away state secrets to say that these folks are going to be — have been — arguing over how best to do all of the above. But it will be to the world’s gain that they stick it out.


*Modern tonic water has far less of the stuff than the originals, and so wouldn’t work.

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