The premise of “Inferno,” the third installment in the “Da Vinci Code” franchise, plays on a very real, timely concern—the threat of overpopulation. The film, directed by Ron Howard, follows Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones as their characters race against the clock to save the world from the release of a disease that would cut the population in half.
In an interview with Caltech professor Dr. Alexei Aravin, one of the world’s leading biologists, we discuss the real-life science behind “Inferno.”
CH: In the movie, the villain’s motive is to “save” the world from overpopulation by using a biological weapon to eliminate half the population. How big of a danger is overpopulation right now?
AA: It is a concern. This is not a huge danger immediately, but obviously as the population continues to grow the way it has been growing, sooner or later it’ll be a problem.
CH: Are bioweapons at the advanced stage portrayed in the movie?
AA: It is possible, but not realistic, that someone is working on this in total secret. People have thought about bioweapons for quite some time. I don’t think anyone has really developed anything of this scale. There are several problems if you develop a weapon like this… If you really develop a weapon, you want to make sure you can use it against your enemy but not against your people. Any kind of biological weapon is difficult. In the movie they don’t have this concern because the goal is to randomly wipe out half the population or more.
The second problem is that if you try to design something like this with the current state of our knowledge and technology… it’s impossible to predict how to be safe. Let’s say you design a magnified virus and you release it and you think you’ll be safe—but because it’s biological, in reality it’s impossible to predict. You’d have to test it somehow beforehand, and… testing on animals won’t be quite the same. This is what is preventing something like this from really happening. It’s not that the technology doesn’t exist, to magnify some virus or make it more dangerous, but the reality is that it’s impossible to develop something like this for practical [use].
CH: What would be the first steps of contagion if something just as potent and fast spreading broke out?
AA: In the real cases, like Ebola—you identify who has the virus. That’s the most important part to separate those who are already affected. Then, find out how the virus spreads. However the most dangerous would be viruses like HIV, for example, that take a long time from infection until the disease can be seen. The real dangerous thing would be a new virus like HIV that would spread through air or water—something that can affect many people before it is noticed.
CH: Movies like “Inferno,” though very much an action-adventure film, is inspired by relevant issues and real-world science. What is something you hope high schoolers take away from movies like this?
AA: I think it’s interesting to know we have advanced technology—[for example], it is possible for us to know the genomes of any organism. We can look at genomes and have computer programs that read what can be designed… From this general perspective, it’s interesting that this movie made me think about how this technology developed and if it would ever be possible to do something like this.
CH: As a professor at Caltech, how does the academic environment encourage a spirit of discovery and breakthrough?
AA: I think this is why people go into science—they’re curious about how things work. For me, it’s not about making something, but rather understanding how everything works. It’s very nice to be in a place with a lot of interactions with different people. Sometimes you think scientists are isolated and only think about their own projects, and to some extent it’s true—everyone has their specialized field—but it’s very important in science to have these interactions with colleagues and constantly discuss things. You never know where new ideas come from. At Caltech, there are a lot of people working in different fields and areas. It’s nice to hear and discuss an idea you’d never think of yourself.