Rob Dunn – Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live (New York: Basic Books, 2018)
This is the kind of book that will make you see your home differently, mostly in a good way. It’s not nearly as icky and creep-crawly as the title makes it sound. Dunn delights in having found a hole in the “market” for scientific research. Most scientists go out in the field to do research, to the point that the places where we spend most of our time are among the least studied by naturalists. Dunn saw this opening and has made a fascinating career of working closer to home—though in the age of COVID-19, he likely has more company than he used to.
Dunn’s methods are also notable. He is a fan of crowdsourcing. For years, he has engaged the public to help him with sample-collecting and species identification. The amateur research he has encouraged has led to countless discoveries of new species and ecological niches. Some of the discoverers are as young as 8 years old. Backyard science turns out to be more than a fun activity. There are legitimate scientific discoveries waiting to be made by anyone with a little curiosity, not just professional scientists.
Something that is both obvious and overlooked is that our homes are full of extreme environments. And as a result, extremophiles that were once thought to be exotic are, in fact, extremely common in human environments. Our freezers are as cold as Antarctica, and some of the same, harmless microbes live in both places. Ovens regularly produce temperatures found only in ocean vents and deep beneath the earth’s crust—and host some of the same, harmless species. Our showers and water heaters mimic conditions of geothermal springs. In fact showers host some of the same, harmless, thermophilic bacteria that were once thought only to live in hot springs. Of course, Legionnaire’s disease also thrives in the same environment, but can’t withstand extremophile temperatures. So if you feel guilty about taking a hot shower or bath, don’t. They’re actually safer.
Household microbes and arthropods are nothing to be scared of. They have been in our homes for centuries—precisely as disease rates have plummeted and life expectancy and infant mortality have reached their lowest levels in human history. Just as cats kept rodents and their diseases and feces out of granaries, the spiders in your basement keep fly populations in check. If you like being around lots of flies, all you have to do is kill the spiders. As it turns out, delicate population equilibriums are constantly balancing themselves within feet of you while you sit on your couch and watch tv.
Spaces stations such as Mir and the ISS played/play host to many of the same species as our houses. Wherever we go, there they are. As humanity expands its ambitions in space, this will take on enormous importance. We cannot live without our symbiotic species. At the same time, they can’t overrun our artificial environments. Dunn shows how everyday environments turn out to be fascinating. And his lack of snobbery and emphasis on inclusion are something scientists in every field should learn from.