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  • Writer's pictureMike Matson

Peace of Mind

Updated: May 16, 2023

This column was published May 13, 2023 in the Manhattan Mercury.


When I need to change a lightbulb, I fetch a new one, replace and toss the one no longer serving its purpose. It doesn’t require planning or forethought. See the problem. Solve the problem.

What if you need to replace a lightbulb in a space that contains all manner of dangerous lethal agents or toxins for which no vaccine or therapy is available? Such is the level and depth of problem-solving that went into the design and construction of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, which will host a ribbon-cutting ceremony later this month in Manhattan.

I was fortunate to be among a group of community leaders recently invited to tour NBAF. I’ll always be able to say I was among the last “civilians” to ever set foot deep in the bowels of the Bio-Safety Level 4 containment space, where the really nasty stuff will live. Where once I stood in penny loafers and blue blazer, will soon stand various and sundry deadly viral hemorrhagic fevers, and assorted “high consequence” animal pathogens.

As a layperson, I can’t begin to explain how, exactly, they will change the lightbulbs in the BSL-4 labs, but after seeing it up close and personal, I left assured it will be done safely. The tour also left me thinking deeper and longer about all the intellectual and creative work that preceded construction. Take a problem and work it backwards.

How much light is needed in that space? What kind of light? Will the vessel carrying the light get hot? How hot? Can we change a bulb without a human being involved? If so, how?

Take the lightbulb example and multiply it by tens of thousands of individual safety design and implementation decisions and you begin to get a sense of the weight and depth of the intellectual capacity that has gone in to NBAF.

All the appropriate government, scientific and academic systems have checked off on NBAF’s safety and biocontainment standards. In fact, the design was found to “meet or exceed” modern standards for such things. NBAF features redundancy upon redundancy after redundancy. The parts that need to be are tornado proof. If the rest of Manhattan is flattened, the structural and containment integrity of NBAF’s most crucial spaces will stand unharmed, as a sentinel to planning for our worst expectations.

A generation ago, I was on the periphery of the early conversations that led us here. I have friends and colleagues who were directly involved. Throughout the spitballing, planning and construction, I never worried about the dangers that will lurk at NBAF. My peace of mind was rooted in how the purpose would be served. The reasonable, logical, common-sense assumption that the best and brightest subject matter experts would be involved in its design.

My assumptions proved true.

After spending a couple of hours there, visiting with those who make society-saving scientific discovery their life’s work and passion – that peace of mind has expanded in roughly equal proportion to the intellectual and creative capacity that permeates NBAF.

Through the instruments of our government and the global scientific community comes a place in Manhattan, like no other on the planet. NBAF will stand as a tangible example of what a civilized society does to make the unknown known. But it’s the intangibles that will allow me to sleep just fine when my head hits the pillow in my home, just three miles away. Less, as the crow flies.

The ultimate goal of society is to promote a good and happy life for its individuals. It creates conditions and opportunities for all and ensures harmony among individuals. Individuals who see problems and solve them.

When they cut the ribbon, that’s what I’ll see.



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