The other day, I was sorting through some old magazines before throwing them out, when that thing that cements my status as “nerd girl” happened—I started reading articles. Peter Fairley’s “Averting the Blackout of the Century” in Discover magazine chronicling the journey of a trio of power engineers and physicists as they developed new computational models to predict and avoid power blackouts caught my eye.
In analyzing the complex grid that provides power across the United States, the trio discovered that the prevailing practice of preventing small blackouts actually increases the risk of large, catastrophic outages. Their message: protecting the grid against small blackouts enables it to run at higher and higher power levels, ultimately setting up the grid for a major collapse.
“That may seem counterintuitive, but it’s in line with systems research that shows merely preventing failure can increase a system’s probability of collapse. Consider forest fires: Research and history show that suppressing small forest fires allows kindling to build up, setting the stage for large, truly devastating conflagrations,” Fairley writes.
“The idea that preventing failures might unwittingly hasten big blackouts proved wildly unpopular with power companies and engineers,” media reassuring the public following the 2003 Northeast blackout, and officials at the U.S. Department of Energy, and the trio’s research funding got cut off. Thankfully they persisted and found other funding, and today power companies are slowly opening to the idea of the smart grid approach.
So what do power grids have to do with vaccines and immunity? Quite a lot, actually, if you take the “system” part of “immune system” seriously. Once again we are reminded that just like with ecological systems (forest fires) and economic systems (market “corrections”), the immune system has the innate capacity to find equilibrium and that we must tolerate the fluctuations (fevers, acute inflammatory illnesses that condition the system, cleansing illnesses that discharge waste) inherent in that process.
We are reminded that unintended consequences often arise from an intolerance for any illness and “The conventional practice of …trying to thwart even the smallest failures, may actually increase the likelihood of big ones.” We also see another example of what happens politically—outright rejection, ostracization, funding withdrawal—when the prevailing paradigm is challenged, and how the pioneers of good ideas can ultimately be vindicated and prevail with dogged persistence.
The fight for a reexamination of the public policy towards good stewardship of our immune system is a noble cause, and the science of systems analysis can be an ally in those efforts.