Chapter 3, #7 Avoiding Panic Commentary

I think that Dr. Escaverra’s decisions were sound.  Preserving the crime scene, so to speak, is common practice.  Not publicizing the deaths was a more difficult decision, but I think the correct one.

People have a right to know if they are in danger but that presupposes a danger is present and one knows what it is.  Neither was the case here.  The Piakuna deaths appear to have been localized and there was no indication of any residual dangers.

You might argue that it is the government’s responsibility to alert its citizens about dangers as soon as they are perceived.  I am not so sure.  It is a recipe for panic, and we have all seen examples of crowds trampling to death innocent bystanders.   I support the more nuanced approach taken by Dr. Escaverra.

There would be time enough to alert the general populace after officials had some understanding of what occurred at the Piakuna village and the threat it posed to others.  There was nothing to be gained by informing people now.  If the threat was imminent, they could do nothing to escape it.

Chapter 3, #6 Reviewing Options Commentary

One of my favorite quotes, attributed to William A. Fowler, describes the tragedy of science as, the horrible murder of beautiful theories by ugly facts.” So true.  So damnably true.

I enjoyed reading this installment because it reveals how science is often done.  Hypothesis—facts—start again.  Here we have a vivid example of two colleagues using one another as sounding boards as they seek to understand the science behind an observed event.  Drs. Riorden and Escaverra are physicians analyzing a medical mystery, but they could have been equally as well two chemists, or two mathematicians or two physicists.  They were in Dr. Escaverra’s office but they could have been equally as well in a lunchroom or laboratory.  The words might be different, but the interplay is unchanged.  What do we think?  What do we know?  What can we conclude?  The horrible murder of beautiful theories by ugly facts.

You want to know what science is like?  Here it is.  You are witnessing Elaine Riorden and Salvador Escaverra demonstrating science as it is done: messy with lots of wrong turns and dead ends.  Welcome to my world.  I have two Nobel Prizes for two of my successes.  No one ever honored me for the thousands of hours and hundreds of weeks I spent working on theories that ended in the trash bin.  Yet, you cannot have one without the other.  There are no successes without the failures and there are infinitely more of the latter than the former.

Chapter 3, #5 Silent Death Commentary

Now Elaine is beginning to hone in on the issues at hand.  Her conclusion that,

“Whatever destroyed the village had to be silent, quick, probably invisible, absolutely devastating, and after looking at these autopsy reports, something that kills in a very mysterious way.”

sums up the situation very succinctly indeed.

Knowing Elaine, as I do now, this should not surprise me, but I am still impressed.  Remember that she must have been very tired at this point in the book.  This is the same day she discovered the deaths in the Piakuna village.  It has been a very long day for her, covering hundreds of miles of travel, and even so, her analysis is razor sharp and moving her and Dr. Escaverra in the right direction.

Elaine also asks a very profound question although she does not realize it at the time.  “Why would anyone want to kill the Piakunas?”

Finally, Elaine’s suspicion that the deaths may have occurred from a natural disaster emanating from the earth’s interior is eerily similar to the arguments made by the Pakistanis thousands of miles away regarding the deaths in China.

Chapter 3, #4 Reviewing Photos Commentary

Dr. Riorden’s conclusion that the Piakuna men were facing an animal attack cannot be right.  Animal attacks leave marks and there were no marks on any of the villagers.  Animals were not the cause of the deaths.

Did the Piakuna men spot a wild animal and attack it only to be killed shortly thereafter by something else?  Possibly, but I think not.  First, it is unlikely that so many spears would have missed their mark.  If an animal was in the vicinity, it would have been killed or wounded, yet no animal carcass was found and no animal blood was discovered.

Animals were not the cause of death of the Piakunas.  Animals did not kill the men by the cove nor the women back in the village.  The Piakuna men were attacking something in the cove.  It stands to reason that the something was the cause of their demise.  Dr. Riorden had that much right.  Whatever killed the people in the village also killed the men by the cove.  The symptoms are identical.

Chapter 3, #3 Baffled Commentary

Had I been in the office with Drs. Riorden and Escaverra I would have agreed completely with the Director of Public Health.  People don’t just die.  They die from something, and we should be able to identify it.   If the Piacunas should still be alive, they would be alive.  That was not the case.  They were dead and something killed them.  It doesn’t matter if the killer was a man with a weapon or a natural disaster.  Something killed the Piacunas and the autopsies should confirm how they died.

The medical profession in Caracas is highly skilled.  The Piacuna deaths had the highest priority from the national government and would have involved the best talent available.  I, too, would be skeptical about drawing a blank.  It made absolutely no sense.

The only revelation we have to this point is that the deaths appear to be localized.  None of the tribes upstream or downstream were affected.

Chapter 3, #2 Nada Commentary

I asked a physician friend of mine whether the autopsy described in the book was accurate.  She said it was.   Each medical examiner has his or her preferred order of exploration but the basic elements are always the same and pretty much follow the protocols described by the author.

The autopsy described in Chapter 3 was a full head to foot examination.  Generally, my friend says, examiners only need to do a partial autopsy because the cause of death is clear and the autopsy is only verifying what everyone already suspects.  For example, if someone is shot in the heart, the medical examiner would examine the chest cavity but have not reason to cut open the brain.

Actually, I found the description of this autopsy interesting in one aspect: how clinical and precise it is.  Not surprising, in retrospect, but illuminating.  The body being examined is not a person, simply an object.  The medical examiner approaches the body much like I approach a differential equation.  We both are attempting to solve a problem.  I work on paper; medical examiners work on cadavers.  The medium is not the issue; the problem is.  So, I say here, but I am not sure I believe it.

Chapter 3, #1 First Autopsy Commentary

I read this chapter with a great deal of personal trepidation because I am squeamish about body parts and blood.  Not my thing.

I remember the first time a doctor drew blood from me as part of an annual physical.  I was probably in my late forties at the time.  I sat in a chair, not watching, because even then I knew I did like the process.

When I returned home my wife asked, “How did they find you?”

“On the floor,” I responded.  I had fainted.

The doctor explained it was not unusual and suggested that I lie down anytime I have to give blood.  That turned out to be good advice because I haven’t fainted again.  Still, I never watch as the nurses and technicians draw my blood.  No need to tempt the fates a second time.

Whenever I watch a movie and they show incisions or beating hearts or other internal organisms, I shut my eyes.  Not something I need to see.  So, as you might imagine, reading about the autopsy in Venezuela was not my favorite part of the book.

Chapter 2, #15 Help Arrives Commentary

The Piakuna dead were headed back to civilization where autopsies would be performed and laboratory analysis conducted with the help of modern machinery.  As I explained earlier to Bob Westhorpe, nothing happens without a cause, and every cause creates a reaction.  Often by analyzing the reaction, we can determine the cause.

The Piakunas were dead and some bodily organ had to fail first.  The heart?  The lungs?  The kidneys?  The autopsies would determine that.  If there were residues of the attacking agent or agents remaining in the corpses, the autopsies would reveal them, too.  Venezuela has a top-flight medical corps; they would uncover the cause of death in short order.

The samples Dr. Riorden collected also had value.  The corpses were dead too long to be a good host for most bacteria.  In contrast, the river and soil were rich in nutrients for living organisms.  Those samples needed to be collected and analyzed.

Modern technology and trained medical examiners would answer many of the questions posed by Dr. Riorden’s macabre discovery.

Chapter 2, #14 The Cove Commentary

Now we know where the other members of the Piakuna village went.  Although the author does not say, this must be the same area where the young girl who was to be married went to pick flowers.  She was right to be frightened; the threat she perceived was very real indeed.

I found the spears interesting because it was strong evidence that something dangerous—human or animal— was present there.  No one throws spears or fires bullets at a tornado or gas leak.  It also suggests that the threat was close, within ten to twenty yards of the spear throwers.

My first thought was a tribal war of some kind but I quickly dismissed that possibility because there were no bodies or traces of death in the area where the spears landed.  More telling, however, were the deaths in the main part of the village.  Those people had not been killed by a tribal attack.  Dr. Riorden would have recognized signs of battle instantly, yet to her trained eye there were no wounds on the women in the village and none on the men in the cove, other than the mutilation explained by the crocs.

Chapter 2, #13 Searching the Village Commentary

I cannot picture Elaine Riorden with a gun.  It makes more sense to me for the cook to have the gun or Manuel, not Elaine.  I wonder if this is one of the times that the author took literary license.  I never asked him.  I will next time we speak.  I could also ask Elaine.

Actually, the more I think about it, the more sure I am that the cook had the rifle.  Otherwise, what was his purpose for going with Elaine and Manuel?

Also, I never gave much thought to the dangers wild animals presented until I read this passage but it was the greatest danger Elaine and the others faced at the time.  The Piakunas were dead too long for any communicable disease to pose a threat and I’m sure by this time it was obvious to Elaine that others would not be returning.

The real question was where the men went?  And when?  Did they see the village in the same state Elaine found it when she landed or had the men reacted to something else, and if so, what?

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