in the room. At least everyone can see the elephant!
And the amoeba is in good company — 90 percent of creatures living in the ocean, and countless others on land and in the air, can be seen only under a microscope, but they’re all vital to every life-form on earth.
We should especially be talking about theProchlorococcus
and its photosynthetic bacteria and protist brethren — they’re responsible for half the planet’s oxygen-producing carbon dioxide synthesis.
But the trouble seems to be that we don’t want to talk about something we can’t see or don’t have direct enough evidence of.
Nicholas P. Money, mycologist and professor of biology at Miami University, has made an excellent contribution to science in popular culture with his new book, “The Amoeba in the Room.”
Money is championing the little guy — well, the invisible guy. He explores and explains in layman’s terms the life that is all around us: in our soil, water, air, bathrooms, dishwashers and bodies.
I am no scientist, so it was his approachable prose that kept me reading: “I’m sorry for all the names, but there is no other way to survey life without carving it up and pinning name tags to chunks of convenient size.”
Money’s delight in his science and self-deprecating humor are contagious. He describes one algae as similar to a Russian nesting doll, an amoeba as moving like a hermit crab, and says that studies of the human microbiome have revealed “the microbiological equivalent of discovering a coral reef in a rain barrel.”
“Every day of our lives, everywhere we go, we are filled with and immersed in a soup of invisible microbes. A hot shower and dental scrub with an electric toothbrush change none of these fundamentals.”
We literally eat, breathe and sleep invisible life, and yet Money suggests there is still some reluctance on the part of biologists to dig deeper into the unseen. And those who are as invested in the study as Money can barely scratch the surface of what there is to study.
“The reason we know so little about [fungi] is that the tiny subset of humans who study biology must select a tiny subset of life for close inspection. ” When most of life on our planet can’t be seen with the naked eye, studying and cataloging it is an uphill battle.
Money tells us that Pliny the Elder planned to catalog “the contents of the entire world” in his “Naturalis Historia,” but today, 2,000 years later, we’ve hardly gotten any closer than he did.
Recent research about the microbiome of the human gut has gotten a lot of press. It turns out our bacteria-teeming innards are crucial to our health in a variety of ways, most importantly our ability to fight disease and combat obesity. In fact, it was my interest in this research that nudged me to pick up this book.
I looked at the dustjacket of this book and thought: Hey, maybe I’ll read something that will help me get thin! Instead I learned that it’s exactly this self-centered thinking that’s holding back scientific progress.
Money makes the point that science historically, and often necessarily, studies what is visible to the eye alone. Science also tends to be human-centric.
“The seventeenth-century microscopists recognized the cellularity of every organism, but couldn’t triumph over the idea of human exceptionalism.” Apparently this struggle continues today.
“Analysis of the microbial communities in the sea, the soil, and the air is comparably pricey, but the promise of medical breakthroughs makes the human microbiome the easier sell.” The ability to fund research on human microorganisms is encouraging, but Money repeatedly makes the point that without the health of every other kind of microorganism, we’re in trouble.
“We know now that microbes control nutrient cycles in the oceans, operate complex food webs that support the traditionally charismatic organisms with flippers and flukes and retirement plans, and ameliorate the damaging effects of humanity.”
But if we’re as mired down in life as Money says we are, why isn’t everyone at least an amateur biologist? “There is something rotten in the state of Denmark, and everywhere else, when a student yawns when introduced to the microscope.” He calls on teachers to impart excitement about biology to their students.
He suggests that as a culture, we need to shift what we recognize as interesting. But whose job is it to present the unseeable to the world as fascinating? Money takes a really great stab at that.
He says the lack of interest in these organisms, which make up all of life, is almost comedic.
Money wants a new type of wildlife documentary. Everyone loves a nature film about whales or reefs, but ...
“If the life in my pond and my colon are beyond comprehension, what hope do we have of understanding how the open ocean works?”
That is, we can’t keep thinking that the elephant in the room is the only thing worth talking about.