Problem solving and the power of humankind

In 1983, AIDS was a death sentence. The HIV virus had just been identified as the cause of a terrifying disease that was killing young, previously healthy people. Even though scientists had determined that the disease could not be spread by casual contact, people with HIV were shunned. In 1985, 13-year-old Ryan White was barred from his Indiana middle school because he had contracted the virus through a blood transfusion to treat hemophilia. Researchers around the world raced to come up with a way to stop the virus, but the death toll kept rising.

Slowly, the global effort to combat the virus started to pay off. Today, more than a million people in the United States are living with HIV, and most of them can look forward to long, productive lives if they get treatment. That amazing turnaround is due to the invention of antiretroviral drugs that can suppress the virus in a person’s body to the point that the virus is undetectable. People with undetectable HIV won’t get sicker as long as they take medication, and can’t transmit HIV sexually. People who are at risk of infection can take medications that largely block transmission. HIV is now preventable.

To those of us who lived through the first horrible decades of the HIV epidemic and saw friends die, the fact that people can live a normal life with HIV is astonishing. But this triumphant tale of science is awaiting its final chapter. As Science News biomedical writer Aimee Cunningham explains in this issue, many people don’t have access to these lifesaving drugs, despite public health efforts to provide them. She examines efforts under way in Washington, D.C., to reach the 22 percent of residents infected with HIV who aren’t getting treatment. The final battle against HIV will be fought not by virologists and biochemists, but by community organizers and public health nurses.

From a vast battle against a global scourge, this issue’s second feature turns to a far quieter challenge — the story of a woman who helped define the limits of mathematical understanding in the 20th century. Freelance writer Evelyn Lamb profiles Julia Robinson, an American mathematician who devoted much of her life to solving Hilbert’s 10th problem. Robinson was honored as the first woman to be elected to the mathematics section of the National Academy of Sciences, the first female president of the American Mathematical Society and as a MacArthur awardee — even though she was denied a faculty position for decades. I would struggle to describe Robinson’s work, but Lamb easily overcomes that challenge. I hope you’ll be as delighted as I was by this exploration of the life of a singular thinker.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.