Our understanding of the natural world and, crucially, how we get that understanding, is changing rapidly.
A perfect example is the current exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, called The Secret World Inside You, which runs until August 14 this year.
What’s on display there is you and me; specifically, our microbiome – that vast array of microbes living in and upon us that outnumber our “human” cells, collectively weighs about three pounds, and, we are learning, greatly affects our health in ways that, until recently, we had no idea about. For example, our microbiome – “good” bacteria, in this case – play important roles in digestion and nutrition, obesity, mood, and immune function, among other things.
Rob DeSalle, Research Scientist in Residence at the AMNH, believes this change in our way of looking at microbes will change the way we think about ourselves and our health. It will shift medicine away from an attitude of “let’s just kill these things” to understanding how these beneficial microbes interact with us.
One example of the beneficial role played by of our microbes — and utterly counterintuitive — is the research showing that antibiotic use actually increases our risk for a future infection. That’s because antibiotics kill both good and bad bacteria. Since good bacteria help fight infection, the less we have — they’re killed by the antibiotic — the less able we are to fight off germs we encounter. The same reasoning holds for antibiotic use and an increased risk for clostridium difficile infection, a pernicious diarrhea which kills about 29,000 people within 30 days of diagnosis, each year in the United States.
However, it is one thing to know something, but it is often quite another thing to be persuaded by it and to act on it. Stanford University biophysicist Manu Prakash, in a recent interview with The New Yorker, explains how seeing is believing: “It’s not good enough to read about [the microbiome] … You have to experience it …Unless you get people curious about the small-scale world, it’s very hard to change mind-sets about diseases [and] … There’s a very deep connection between science education and global health.” To let everyone see this microworld in action, Prakash has developed a bookmark-size largely paper microscope, available to everyone this summer for the mere cost of a dollar (see preceding link).
And therein lies the value of The Secret World Inside You exhibit at the AMNH — it makes the invisible world real and meaningful. It has done so, commendably, by coming up with entertaining teaching games, quizzes, life-size animation and compelling visual effects, attractive to people of all ages (as is the website itself).
Here’s one way to gauge its effectiveness: How would you get your child to develop the habit of washing their hands so as to prevent the colonization and spread of disease-causing germs; MRSA, say? You could try a rational discussion backed up with data from the Centers for Disease Control that says it kills over 11,000 people a year in the US. Or you could have your child walk around and inspect a colorful and compelling life-size model of MRSA being attacked by a macrophage, and let that lead to a discussion about the microbial world and your health. Which do you think would do the trick? Which method of persuasion would stick with your child and perhaps even inspire him or her to become interested in the world of science and disease?