Many years before “quarantine” entered quotidian language during the COVID-19 pandemic, Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley were at work on a book about it, researching centuries of medical isolation. Released in July 2021, Until Proven Safe: The History and Future of Quarantine covers the black death, Ebola, and coronaviruses as well as agricultural diseases, nuclear contamination, and technology that could alter the practice of isolation. The authors join Alta Journal books editor David L. Ulin for a conversation on their eerily predictive research and what quarantine might look like in our future.
About the guests:
Geoff Manaugh is the author of A Burglar’s Guide to the City and the creator of the architecture and technology website BLDGBLOG. He regularly writes for the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, Wired, and many other publications.
Nicola Twilley is the cohost of the award-winning podcast Gastropod, which looks at food through the lenses of science and history, and is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker.
Manaugh and Twilley live in Los Angeles.
About the book:
Quarantine is our most powerful response to uncertainty: it means waiting to see whether something hidden inside us will be revealed. It is also one of our most dangerous, operating through an assumption of guilt. In quarantine, we are considered infectious until proven safe.
Until Proven Safe tracks the history and future of quarantine around the globe, chasing the story of emergency isolation through time and space—from crumbling Mediterranean lazzarettos built to contain the black death to an experimental Ebola unit in London, from the hallways of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to closed-door simulations where pharmaceutical execs and epidemiologists prepare for pandemics yet to come.
But the story of quarantine ranges far beyond the history of medical isolation. The authors tour a nuclear waste isolation facility beneath the New Mexican desert, see plants stricken with a disease that threatens the world’s wheat supply, and meet NASA’s planetary protection officer, tasked with saving Earth from extraterrestrial infections.
With Until Proven Safe, Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley bring us a book as compelling as it is definitive, an up-to-the-minute investigation of the interplay of forces—biological, political, technological—that shape our modern world. It is a thrillingly reported, thought-provoking exploration of the meaning of freedom, governance, and mutual responsibility.•