A classic sandwich sold at McDonald’s is the McRoyale, which is also known as the quarter pounder here in the states. The Quarter Pounder got its name, because (as the name suggests) the patty has a precooked weight of 1/4 a pound (113.4 g for everyone else who uses the metric system).

This sandwich is a staple on McDonald’s menu (and quite delicious if I do say so myself)! In 1980s A&W (another fast-food burger chain) released a new hamburger hoping to compete with McDonald’s Quarter Pounder. Their burger was a 1/3 of beef and cost the SAME price as McDonald’s quarter pounder burger. But customers began complaining about the price of the 1/3 pound A&W sandwich. “Why should we pay the same amount for a third of a pound of meat as we do for a quarter-pound of meat at McDonald’s? You’re overcharging us.” (No joke, this is a direct quote).

A majority (official amount unknown) of customers really thought that a 1/4 pound burger was larger than a 1/3 pound burger. After all, 4 is larger than 3. That math checks out… right?

Not quite. When it comes to fractions, the larger the number on the bottom, the smaller the amount is.

From this story, I take away 2 things -

  • A lack of understanding of basic science and math makes life harder than it needs to be
  • There are wide differences in peoples’ scientific knowledge and understanding.

Now, I may be biased, having a love for nonfiction and starting this book club, but many studies show that reading nonfiction helps increase scientific literacy (at least for children & students, where most of this research is taking place… but I am willing to bet that it’s the same for adults too!), and should be an active part of you’re reading library.

If there was a single nonfiction book I wish I had read before 2020, it would be this month’s book pick - Viruses, Pandemics, and Immunity by Arup K. Chakraborty and Andrey S. Shaw. This book does a dive into the history of pandemics, the history of vaccines, how our immune systems works, and how vaccines work. This book is not about Covid-19, although there are some nods to Covid within the book.

I wish I (and everyone else in the world) had read this book to have a firm foundation and a slightly increased level of scientific literacy regarding sickness and pandemics. Maybe, just maybe, if people had a stronger scientific foundation, there wouldn’t have been so many counteracting news articles this past year.

With so much news around Covid-19, and news websites being rewarded by the number of clicks on a headline, and not the accuracy of their article, it’s not surprising that so much information was spread so rapidly. In a single day, you can read one article claiming that “masks work” another claiming that “masks don’t work” both articles being backed by science. Another example, which I personally fell for, for a few days we were told to avoid anti-inflammatory drugs if you have Covid, but this recommendation went away a week later. Obviously, all of these claims can’t be correct, so which one (if any) is right? How do I tell?

This past year, the differing levels of scientific literacy have become a REAL problem. How do you communicate with people with varying levels of understanding of science? I do not envy the people tasked with that job.

But back to pandemics —

Pandemics aren’t new. Pandemics have been with us since the beginning of civilization and as a result, pandemics have shaped our history. Some pandemics have come and gone, like various influenza pandemics, while others have persisted for centuries, like Bubonic Plague (which people still get today!), or smallpox (even Ancient Egyptian mummies showed signs of having Small Pox!).

Before 2020 the most recent global pandemic was the Spanish Flu of 1918 (So I guess the idea that COVID-19 is a “Once in a century pandemic” checks out 🤔). The Spanish Flu killed more people during WW2 than combat.

Since the Spanish Flu, we have learned much about viruses and germ theory! We have learned about the immune system and how it works — that both cells and blood play a part in defending our bodies against sickness. We have learned the many ways that viruses spread and have created methods to track the spread. We have even figured out how to manipulate DNA to create vaccines-like cells that trigger our immune system to react as if the virus was in our body. If you made a list of things we have learned about pandemics since the Spanish Flu, the list would go on and on and on!

However, one thing that isn’t new during a pandemic outbreak, and that’s the use of masks. Now I’m not going to join the Great Masked Debate about whether or not masks work — I just want to talk about the pattern of wearing masks during pandemics (the picture are too good not to share).

During the 17th century Black Plague epidemic, doctors wore masks when seeing sick patients. At this time, bacteria and viruses were too small to be seen, so people thought sickness spread through bad smells in the air known as miasmas. Doctors’ beak-like masks were filled with herbs and spices to counteract the “sick smell” of patients, keeping them safe.

During the Spanish Flu pandemic, people also wore masks. In some places, masks were even mandated! (sounds vaguely familiar).

Check out this image of a family in 1919. I hope you take a moment to zoom in and notice that the family cat is also wearing a mask. Checks out.

Scientific Literacy and the ability to understand basic math and science not only can guarantee you are getting the best deal on your hamburger, but it can also prepare you with tools to combat the increasing amount of contradicting information that is being published about life and death topics — like global pandemics.

See you next month to talk about Magnificent Women and Their Revolutionary Machines!


P.S. If you made it this far and want to get these newsletters in your email monthly, feel free to join #theSTEMBookClub here.

Want to learn more about this topic? Here are my Recommended Supplementary Resources

📖 A Planet of Viruses by Carl Zimmer

📱 Nini And the Brain Instagram Account

📺 Youtube video by Arup K. Chakraborty and Andrey S. Shaw about their book