CCNet ESSAY, 13 December 2000


By Jon Richfield <>

History is rich in ironies and the history of science is richer than most.   One
small example is Sir Fred's proposal that life or quasi-life continually rains
down from the heavens.  He suggested that this is the source of our eternal
succession of influenza epidemics.  It reflects a cycle of celestial
inoculations of virus material from space.

Now, the word influenza derives from the Italian.  In the eighteenth century
they referred to a particular epidemic of flu as an influence, literally meaning
an in-flowing.  The idea was that this influence was from the stars.  The word
was adopted into English as an alternative for "grippe" and mutilated into the
slang "flu", a meme which by simple tenacity and presumably a little help from
alien influences, has since attained the status of accepted terminology.  Flu is
a catchy trigraph in more senses than one and probably the majority of people
who use the word do not even know that it is an abbreviation and could not guess
the source if challenged.   Even the word "influence" itself is fairly recent in
English, dating from the sixteenth century.  It derived from the same Latin root
and originally referred to vague in-pourings of god-knows-what from the stars.

I sometimes wonder whether Sir Fred realised at the time how apposite his
introductory exemplar of alien invasion was.  Perhaps someone who read his
original work could let me know whether he referred anywhere to the
centuries-old "influence" idea.  It is a tempting thought that he
(astrologically a crab) and Chandra Wickramasinghe (astrologically a goat) were
unable to resist expressing a nip of the mischief inherent in their celestially
determined natures.  Like cosmology, astrology has such subtle effects on our
lives, does it not?


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