Twenty years ago, Bill Jacobs made the tuberculosis bug glow. It was like mounting a pair of headlights on a man-eating tiger. One of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases could no longer slink around in the shadows, evading its trackers. Microbiologists could now peer into a microscope to see if a particular antibiotic turned out the lights—that is, killed the TB bacteria. Or at least they could do this so long as they didn’t happen to be Bill Jacobs. That’s because when Bill Jacobs looked into the microscope at his own creation, he couldn’t see a thing. He was going blind.

When Jacobs looks at me today, first he sees my left eyeball, then he sees my nose, then, my lips. He sees the world in pieces. One. Piece. At a time. Imagine rolling up a magazine and holding it to your eye. That’s what Bill Jacobs sees. His field of vision is a pinhole of clarity no more than a few inches wide and shaped like an amoeba. A genetic disease called retinitis pigmentosa has long since destroyed the rod photoreceptors in his eyes, which is why he can’t see under the dim light of a microscope, and it is now eating away at last of his color-sensing cones.

When I look at Jacobs, I see a man in a sage-colored sweater with snowy white.....


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