Yong Discusses Wonderful World of Microbes

Author Ed Yong on stage with NIH director Dr. Francis Collins at the Big Read event
Author Ed Yong on stage with NIH director Dr. Francis Collins at the Big Read event

The topic is quite infectious, though most kinds of microbes are not. We’re colonized by trillions of bacteria and other microbes, the bulk of them beneficial or harmless. Fewer than 100 species of bacteria can even cause infectious diseases in people, writes author Ed Yong in his bestselling book I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life.

Yong, a British science writer living in Washington who writes regularly for The Atlantic, recently sat down with NIH director Dr. Francis Collins to discuss his book at the second annual Big Read. This giant book club event in Masur Auditorium followed weeks of informal book discussions at the NIH Library among interested staff.

In writing I Contain Multitudes, a title borrowed from a line in the Walt Whitman poem Song of Myself, Yong said he wanted to convey that microbes aren’t just bugs that make us sick. They’re the dominant form of life on the planet, he said. They’re everywhere and they do interesting things.

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Biologist Studies How Species Reconcile, Cooperate

ORS’s Joe Cox and Cpl. Christine Fedorisko form cheering squad at hike.
Dr. Frans de Waal

In the minutes before the inaugural talk in the Gadlin Lecture Series, dozens of people entered Lipsett Amphitheater in search of empty seats. When reserved seats were opened to the first takers, the seatless scurried over to claim chairs, in what almost seemed like a behavioral experiment set up by the guest speaker.

The lecture honored Dr. Howard Gadlin, director emeritus of NIH’s Office of the Ombudsman, Center for Cooperative Resolution, who attended the talk. The overflow crowd was a testament to the lecture that was to follow by Dr. Frans de Waal, director, Living Links Center and psychology professor at Emory University. A renowned biologist and primatologist, de Waal studies animal social behavior and repeatedly demonstrates that animals are emotional, empathetic beings.

In biology, “Emotions prime you for action,” said de Waal. “Being fearful doesn’t do you any good unless the fear makes you escape or fight.” It is unclear if, like people, animals are conscious of their emotions and have the sort of feelings that we often express in language.

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