Exploring the Wilderness Inside Your Home

In biologist Rob Dunn’s new book Never Home Alone, he introduces readers to the visible and microscopic organisms composing an indoor ecosystem, discussing what we know (and don’t know) about the creatures that share our homes.

Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live. Rob Dunn (Nov 2018) Source

If you enjoyed I Contain Multitudes, this book should be next on your reading list. Just like Ed Yong shows readers the fascinating microorganisms all around us, Dunn opens our eyes to the minute creatures that live within the confinement of our own homes. Drawing largely from his own research as a biologist, and backing up his claims with other relevant research, Dunn discusses what lives in the ecosystem of the home. From the bacteria lurking on shower heads, to drain flies, crickets, and spiders, Dunn investigates everything he can find — whether it’s benign, beneficial, or potentially malicious.

While this wilderness in miniature is fascinating, I was most surprised to learn that some of these organisms — many, in fact — are actually waiting to be “discovered”, if someone would take the time to look more closely at them:

“The discovery that almost a billion thumb-sized Japanese camel crickets were living in houses without anyone really knowing they were present left me a bit dumbfounded,” Dunn writes. “If you aren’t a scientist and you see a camel cricket in your house, you assume scientists know what it is. If you are a scientist, but not an entomologist, and you see a camel cricket in your house, you assume that entomologists know what it is. If you are an entomologist and you see a camel cricket in your house you assume the specialists in camel crickets know what that is.”

But this mindset — assuming someone else already knows about a certain organism — can be problematic.

“Meanwhile, just two people on Earth specialize in the study of camel crickets and neither of them happens to live in a house where the Japanese species is present,” Dunn adds, almost humorously. “I started to wonder whether this phenomenon — of assuming someone else knows — is likely to be more common in homes than other habitats, more common because homes are the place we are most likely to assume that someone else knows, most likely to assume that everything is under control.”

If Dunn’s idea is true, and we can indeed find new species right in our own homes and backyards, it could have important ramifications for science.

Dunn continues: “If I was right, it meant that not only was the home a place where it was still possible to make new discoveries but also it might be an ideal place to make discoveries, discoveries that, because they implicitly affect many people, would be important.”

But why is this discovery of new species inside our homes important? What makes the critters that crawl in our basement and on our walls so alluring to Dunn and his team? As it turns out, many of these species hold clues inside them — clues that can teach us how to create new technologies, medicines, and even prevent allergies. But unless we study these organisms purposefully, Dunn argues, we won’t unlock their secrets.

One of the more interesting species that Dunn discusses is a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, which is notorious for sneaking into the guts of cats by manipulating the behavior of mice. More interesting is the implication of whether these parasites, after infiltrating humans by way of us cleaning the cat litter box, affect human behavior. I was hoping that Dunn may have some insightful theory or perhaps new information about the species explored in Kathleen McAuliffe’s book This Is Your Brain on Parasites, but he had little to offer in way of enlightening information or opinion. It seems the mystery of this parasite is yet to be solved.

Other than that, I have no complains about Dunn’s book. It was well-paced, fascinating, and made for wonderful holiday-break reading. I particularly enjoyed that Dunn shared a lot about his own research as well as his students – it’s always nice when a scientist talks about the important work his student assistants do and their contribution to their studies.

Overall, Dunn’s most recent book is makes for a fascinating and entertaining read. I encourage you to look for a copy at your local bookstore!

Read About the Remarkable Female Scientist Who Fought to Regulate Radiation

Gayle Greene’s The Woman Who Knew Too Much: Alice Stewart and the Secret of Radiation is an incredible overview of the life and work of Stewart, whose voice fills the pages and echoes through time to help readers better understand the field of radiology in the twentieth century.  Through extensive interviews with the indomitable Alice Stewart herself, and thorough research into the controversial issues of radiation and nuclear power in the twentieth century, Greene tells a story that deserves a place in the history books.

Who was Alice Stewart?

Alice Stewart. Source

Dr. Alice Mary Stewart (1906-2002) “was a British physician and epidemiologist specializing in social medicine and the effects of radiation on health” (Alice Stewart, Wikipedia). She is known for being the first person to find a link between prenatal x-rays and childhood cancer, the reason that pregnant women today must avoid x-rays. She is also known for her study of the effects of radiation on workers at the Hanford plutonium production plant in Washington. Her work is still cited today by those who argue that low-level doses of radiation have lasting negative effects on our health.

Greene begins with Alice’s parents, particularly her mother, “who became a physician at a time when this was barely a possibility for a woman”.  Greene takes us through Alice’s life — the story of their large family, then Alice’s days at Cambridge. Alice was born in 1906, the third of eight children. She went on to study medicine at Cambridge, and shared with Greene the experience of her first physiology lecture:

It was a large room, an auditorium you entered from the rear with a long set of steps descending to the speaker’s podium in the front. I slipped in, hoping to take a seat as close to the back as possible. But when I stepped into the hall and took my first steps, the students, all male, began stomping, slowly and deliberately, in time with my steps. As I took my first step into that room, bang! came the sound of two hundred men stomping their feet in unison. I took my second step and the stomp was repeated. Every step I took, there was this stomp, stomp, stomp. My first instinct was to duck into a seat and disappear, but no — every row was blocked by the men. I was forced down to the front row, where I found three other girls and a Nigerian. These medical students had managed to segregate us out — they weren’t going to have anything to do with women or minority populations. I wasn’t whipped. I was stomped.” Alice Stewart

Although women women had been allowed to study medicine within the past few years, Greene notes, they were still yet to be accepted in the field. Throughout her education, as well as her career, Alice struggled to be recognized by her peers in medicine. Although she would come to be recognized by many as an expert in radiology, she fought sexist stereotypes her entire life — treatment that only served to smother her important, controversial work even further. Take into account the state of the world at her time of research – the budding of nuclear energy, the competition for nuclear weapons – and it seems as though the entire world was willing to turn their gaze away from her argument that these industries were killing their workers from radiation exposure.

Greene does an excellent job exploring this controversy in great detail as she examines the societal obstacles, as well as looking at the way Alice was treated as a woman in her field. As a reader, she is our guide through Alice’s life. But I don’t recommend starting with Greene’s introduction in chapter one. Though I was trained as an English major and always read footnotes, check citations, and never skip the introductions or forewords, I don’t think it’s worth it for The Woman Who Knew Too Much. This biography is much better experienced by diving into the second chapter, where Greene’s wonderful storytelling immediately sweeps you into the story. It almost feels as if she betrayed too much information in the introduction, and you won’t get a good feel for her writing style. However, it does allow the reader to meet Alice Stewart herself and lay the groundwork for how Greene ended up writing her biography in the first place, which is valuable backstory.

Aside from the introduction, the rest of the book is astoundingly intellectual and well-written. Green has put considerable effort into researching Alice Stewart’s work and interviewing the formidable scientist herself. This is an incredibly important biography – Gayle Greene has captured a picture of one of the most important and overlooked female scientists of history, and captured her brilliantly. Alice Stewart shines in Greene’s writing: her voice and personality is memorable, her work is fascinating, and perhaps most important, Greene is careful to put her in the context of culture at the time. Through a mix of reflection and action-filled description, Greene does an excellent job presenting a story worth telling. It’s a documentary and biography in one book.

Why is this worth reading about? Why would Greene have dedicated so much time into getting to know Alice Stewart and sharing her story with readers? The story of Alice Stewart is not only that of a scientist whose work was censored and barred in every way possible by the industry she fought to regulate, it’s the story of a woman who fought hard to be recognized in her field. It’s the story of a female scientist who rose to recognition through hard work, passion, and occasionally, sheer luck.

We need more stories like this to be told. We need more about the women who knew too much, women who were silenced and censored. In the context of our world today, we need women’s stories to be told, now more than ever.

Start with this one.


Journey through the Alimentary Canal with Mary Roach


Today’s guest review is by science writer Jordan Gaal. I am pleased to share Jordan’s review here on Read More Science — he provides an insightful glimpse into author Mary Roach’s Gulp, introducing us to Roach’s delightful and interesting story about the science of the digestive system.

unnamedJordan Gaal is a strategic communications and public relations professional serving clients in the agriculture, food and health industries at MorganMyers. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2018 with a Bachelor of Science in life sciences communication. Jordan’s work has appeared in the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience, the Journal of Undergraduate Science and Technology and the Genetic Literacy Project. Follow him on Twitter or at the scicommreport.com.

If you’ve ever wondered how to survive being swallowed alive or if chewing longer can lower the national debt, then you’re in luck. Mary Roach, author of other humorous and fascinating science stories such as Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, delivers 327 pages jam-packed with science about the digestive system in Gulp: Adventures of the Alimentary Canal.

Roach succeeds at being informative, and often humorous, about everything from chewing to the inevitable (or at least it should be, as you’ll soon learn) disposal of your food, without being overly crude. Roach sums up her literary gut-journey the best:

“I don’t want you to say, ‘This is gross.’ I want you to say, ‘I thought this would be gross, but it’s really interesting.’”

I can assure you, there is no digestive-related stone left unturned. It’s the perfect book for casual reading, and an even better book to binge-read in few nights.

With a delightful use of metaphor, Roach weaves words together to create simple explanations of complex systems, without sacrificing the science. The introduction begins with a brief overview of the entire alimentary canal, defined as the whole passage along which food passes through the body from mouth to anus, including the esophagus, stomach, and intestines. Roach provides in depth explanations of the purpose of saliva, the science of stomach acid and the dangers of hydrogen and methane, the key ingredients in flatulence.

This isn’t only a science book about the alimentary canal, it’s a book about the way scientists work. In each chapter, Roach introduces us to a new scientist, modern or historical. She skillfully transports you to the lab, describing in colorful details the historical, and sometimes forgotten, experiments and procedures that led to our current understanding of digestion.

In chapter five, Roach introduces us to “medicine’s oddest couple”, William Beaumont and Alexis St. Martin. Starting in 1822, they had a strictly professional relationship, at least from what we can tell. St. Martin was a common laborer who was involved in a terrible accident and Beaumont was a scientist looking for something to bolster his lackluster career. Without spoiling too much, St. Martin’s accident resulted in an observable hole in his stomach and Beaumont abused it for science. From this came several discoveries that Roach describes in perfect, humorous science writing — like only she can.

If you aren’t excited yet, in the penultimate chapter Roach describes something called a “megacolon”. It’s pretty close to what it sounds like. Numerous people throughout history have suffered at the hands of the megacolon, a fascinating digestive anomaly to the medical community. One notable character discussed in this chapter is the King himself, Elvis Presley. You’ll have to read for yourself to figure out what Presley and megacolons have in common.

In one word, Roach’s book is intriguing. History buffs will appreciate the accounts of 19th century medical practices and avid science readers will truly enjoy the informative descriptions of the inner workings of our digestive system. For any reader, this book will leave you feeling just a little bit closer to your stomach.

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Connect with Sarah at sciencebookreviews@gmail.com