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TEDxMidAtlantic

Anna Rothschild: Why you should love gross science

Filmed:
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What can we learn from the slimy, smelly side of life? In this playful talk, science journalist Anna Rothschild shows us the hidden wisdom of "gross stuff" and explains why avoiding the creepy underbelly of nature, medicine and technology closes us off to important sources of knowledge about our health and the world. "When we explore the gross side of life, we find insights that we never would have thought we'd find, and we even often reveal beauty that we didn't think was there," Rothschild says.

- Science journalist
Anna Rothschild makes videos about science for the young and the young at heart. Full bio

Did you know that one
of the first fertility drugs
00:12
was made from the pee of Catholic nuns,
00:16
and that even the Pope got involved?
00:21
So, this is totally true.
00:24
Back in the 1950s, scientists knew
that when women enter menopause,
00:25
they start releasing high levels
of fertility hormones in their urine.
00:31
But there was this doctor
named Bruno Lunenfeld,
00:36
who wondered if he could actually
isolate those hormones from the urine
00:39
and use it to help women
who are having trouble getting pregnant.
00:43
Obviously, the problem with this
was that in order to test this idea,
00:46
he needed a lot of pee from older women.
00:50
And that is not an easy thing to find.
00:55
So he and his colleagues
got special permission from the Pope
00:57
to collect gallons and gallons of urine
01:03
from hundreds of older Catholic nuns.
01:07
And in doing so,
01:11
he actually isolated hormones
01:13
that are still used to help women
get pregnant today,
01:15
though now, they can be
synthesized in a lab,
01:18
and gallons of pee aren't necessary.
01:21
So why am I standing up here,
01:24
telling this wonderfully
intellectual audience about nun pee?
01:26
Well, I'm a science journalist
and multimedia producer,
01:33
who has always been
fascinated by gross stuff.
01:36
So fascinated, in fact,
that I started a weekly YouTube series
01:41
called "Gross Science,"
01:45
all about the slimy, smelly,
creepy underbelly
01:46
of nature, medicine and technology.
01:51
Now, I think most of us would agree
01:54
that there's something
a little gross about pee.
01:56
You know, it's something
that we don't really like to talk about,
01:59
and we keep the act
of doing it very private.
02:02
But when Lunenfeld
peered into the world of pee,
02:05
he discovered something
deeply helpful to humanity.
02:09
And after a year and a half
of making my show,
02:12
I can tell you that very often
when we explore the gross side of life,
02:16
we find insights that we never
would have thought we'd find,
02:21
and we even often reveal beauty
that we didn't think was there.
02:24
I think it's important for us to talk
about gross things for a few reasons.
02:28
So, first of all,
talking about gross stuff
02:33
is a great tool for education,
02:35
and it's an excellent way
to preserve curiosity.
02:38
To explain what I mean,
02:42
why don't I tell you a little bit
about what I was like as a child?
02:43
So, I was what you might call a gross kid.
02:48
In fact, my love of science itself
02:53
began when my parents bought me
a slime chemistry set
02:56
and was then only enhanced
02:59
by doing gross experiments
in my sixth-grade biology class.
03:02
We did things like, we swabbed
surfaces around our classroom
03:05
and cultured the bacteria we'd collected,
03:10
and we dissected owl pellets,
03:13
which are these balls of material
that are undigested that owls barf up,
03:15
and it's really kind of gross
and awesome and cool.
03:20
Now, the fact that I was obsessed
with gross stuff as a kid
03:24
is not so revolutionary.
03:27
You know, lots of kids
are really into gross things,
03:28
like playing in dirt or collecting beetles
or eating their boogers.
03:31
And why is that?
03:36
I think really little kids
are like little explorers.
03:38
They just want to experience
as much as they can
03:42
and don't have any idea
about the relative acceptability
03:45
of touching a ladybug versus a stinkbug.
03:49
They just want to understand
how everything works
03:52
and experience as much
of life as they can.
03:55
And that is pure curiosity.
03:57
But then adults step in,
04:00
and we tell kids not to pick their noses
and not to touch the slugs or toads
04:02
or whatever else they find
in the backyard,
04:07
because those things are gross.
04:09
And we do that in part
to keep kids safe, right?
04:11
Like, maybe picking
your nose spreads germs
04:14
and maybe touching that toad
will give you warts,
04:17
even though I don't
actually think that's true.
04:21
You should feel free to touch
as many toads as you want.
04:23
So at a certain point,
when kids get a little bit older,
04:27
there's this way
that engaging with gross stuff
04:30
isn't just about curiosity,
04:33
it's also about, sort of,
finding out where the limits are,
04:34
pushing the boundaries of what's OK.
04:37
So, lots of kids of a certain age
will have burping competitions
04:40
or competitions to see
who can make the grossest face.
04:44
And they do that in part because
it's a little bit transgressive, right?
04:48
But there's another layer
to why we define stuff as gross.
04:52
As humans, we've sort of extended
the concept of disgust to morality.
04:56
So, the psychologist Paul Rozin would say
05:03
that many of the things
we categorize as gross
05:06
are things that reminds us
that we're just animals.
05:09
These are things like
bodily fluids and sex
05:13
and physical abnormalities and death.
05:17
And the idea that we're just animals
can be really unsettling,
05:21
because it can be this reminder
of our own mortality.
05:25
And that can leave many of us
with this deep existential angst.
05:29
Rozin would say that there's this way
05:34
in which disgust
and the avoidance of gross things
05:36
becomes not just a way
to protect our bodies,
05:41
it becomes a way to protect our souls.
05:44
I think at a certain point,
kids really begin to internalize
05:48
this link between
disgusting things and immorality.
05:51
And while I don't have any concrete data
to back up this next idea,
05:55
I think that for a lot of us,
it happens around the time we hit puberty.
06:01
And you know -- yeah, I know.
06:07
So during puberty,
our bodies are changing,
06:11
and we're sweating more,
and girls get their periods,
06:14
and we're thinking about sex
in this way that we never did before.
06:18
And through the human capacity
for abstraction,
06:21
this shame can settle in.
06:24
So we don't necessarily just think,
06:27
"Oh, my goodness, something
really gross is happening to my body!"
06:29
We think, "Oh my God, maybe I'm gross.
06:32
And maybe that means that there's
something bad or wrong about me."
06:36
The thing is, that if you de facto
associate gross stuff with immorality,
06:41
you lose a huge part of your curiosity,
06:46
because there is so much
out there in the world
06:49
that is a little bit gross.
06:52
Like, think about going
for a walk in the woods.
06:53
You could just pay attention
to the birds and the trees and the flowers
06:56
and that would be fine,
07:00
but in my view, you'd be missing
a bigger and more awesome picture
07:01
of life on this planet.
07:06
There are cycles of decay
that are driving forest growth,
07:08
and there are networks of fungus
beneath your feet
07:11
that are connecting literally
all of the plants around you.
07:14
That's really amazing.
07:17
So I feel like we should be talking
about gross stuff early and often
07:19
with young people,
07:23
so they feel like they're actually
allowed to claim this bigger picture
07:24
of life on our planet.
07:27
The good news is that for many of us,
the fascination with gross stuff
07:30
doesn't exactly go away,
07:34
we just kind of pretend
like it's not there.
07:36
But truthfully, we all spend
sort of a big part of our lives
07:38
just trying not to be gross.
07:43
When you really think about it,
07:45
we're sort of just like bags of fluids
and some weird tissues
07:47
surrounded by a thin layer of skin.
07:52
And to a certain extent,
07:56
multiple times a day, whether
consciously or subconsciously,
07:58
I need to remind myself
not to fart publicly.
08:02
(Laughter)
08:06
You know, we're desperately trying
to avoid being gross all the time,
08:07
so I think many of us take
this kind of voyeuristic delight
08:11
in learning about gross things.
08:14
This is certainly true of kids;
08:16
the number of middle school teachers
who show my videos
08:18
in their science classes
08:21
is a testament to that.
08:22
But I think it's totally true
of adults, too.
08:23
You know, I think we all love
hearing about gross stories,
08:26
because it's a socially acceptable way
to explore the gross side of ourselves.
08:29
But there's this other reason
08:36
that I think talking about
gross stuff is so important.
08:37
A while back, I made a video
on tonsil stones -- sorry, everyone --
08:40
which are these balls of mucus
and bacteria and food
08:45
that get lodged in your tonsils
and they smell really terrible,
08:50
sometimes you cough them up
and it's like -- it's awful.
08:53
And many, many people
have experienced this.
08:58
But many of the people
who have experienced this
09:00
haven't really had a forum
to talk about it.
09:04
And today, this video that I made
is my most popular video.
09:06
It has millions of views.
09:10
(Laughter)
09:12
And the comment section for that video
became sort of like a self-help section,
09:15
where people could talk about
their tonsil stone experiences
09:20
and, like, tips and tricks
for getting rid of them.
09:23
And I think it became this great way
for people to talk about something
09:25
that they'd never felt comfortable
taking about publicly.
09:29
And that is wonderful when it's about
something as goofy as tonsil stones,
09:32
but it's a little sad when a video
can have an effect like that
09:38
when it's about something
as common as periods.
09:41
Last February, I released
a video on menstruation,
09:46
and to this day,
I am still getting messages
09:49
from people around the globe
who are asking me about their periods.
09:52
There are a lot of young people --
and some not-so-young people -- out there,
09:58
who are worried that
what's happening to their bodies
10:03
is somehow not normal.
10:06
And, of course, I always tell them
that I am not a medical professional,
10:08
and that, if possible,
they should talk to a doctor.
10:11
But the truth of the matter is
that everyone should feel comfortable
10:14
talking to a doctor
about their own bodies.
10:17
And that's why I think
it's really important for us
10:19
to start this dialogue about gross stuff
from a pretty early age,
10:22
so we can let our kids know
10:25
that it's alright to have agency
over your own body
10:27
and over your own health.
10:30
There's another reason
that talking to your doctor
10:32
about your health and gross stuff
10:34
is really, really important.
10:36
Doctors and the scientific community
can only address issues
10:37
when they know
there's something to address.
10:41
So one of the really
interesting things I learned
10:44
while making the video on periods,
10:47
is that I was talking to this
one scientist who told me
10:48
there's actually still a lot
we don't know about periods.
10:51
There's a lot of basic research
that still hasn't been done.
10:56
In part, that's just because there weren't
a lot of scientists in the field
10:59
who were women, to ask questions about it.
11:04
And it's also not a topic
that women talk about publicly.
11:07
So there's this gap in what we know,
11:10
just because no one was there
to ask a question.
11:13
There's one final reason that I think
talking about gross stuff is so important,
11:16
and that's because you just never know
what you're going to find
11:21
when you peel back all those layers
of disgustingness.
11:24
So, take the California brown sea hare.
11:29
This is a sea slug that squirts
this lovely, bright purple ink
11:33
at any creature that tries to eat it.
11:37
But it also happens to be
one of the kinkiest creatures
11:39
in the animal kingdom.
11:43
So these guys are hermaphrodites,
11:45
which means they have both
male and female genitalia.
11:47
And when it's time to mate,
11:50
up to 20 individuals will all get together
in this kind of, like, conga line
11:51
and they'll all mate together.
11:57
(Laughter)
11:59
A single sea hare will inseminate
the partner in front of it
12:02
and receive sperm from the one behind,
12:06
which is sort of like
an awesome time-saver,
12:08
when you think about it.
12:11
(Laughter)
12:12
But if scientists had only seen this
and they were like,
12:16
"OK, we're just not going to
touch that with a stick,"
12:19
they would have missed
the bigger thing about sea hares
12:22
that makes them really remarkable.
12:25
It turns out that these sea hares
have a small number of very large neurons,
12:27
which makes them excellent
to use in neuroscience research.
12:33
And, in fact, the scientist Eric Kandel
used them in his research
12:38
to understand how memories are stored.
12:42
And you know what?
12:46
He won a Nobel Prize for his work.
12:47
So go out there and pick up beetles
and play in dirt and ask questions.
12:50
And own your fascination with gross stuff
and don't be ashamed of it,
12:56
because you never know
what you're going to find.
13:00
And as I say at the end of all my videos,
13:02
"Ew."
13:05
Thank you.
13:07
(Applause)
13:08

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About the speaker:

Anna Rothschild - Science journalist
Anna Rothschild makes videos about science for the young and the young at heart.

Why you should listen

Anna Rothschild combines whimsical writing with painting, collage and digital animation to bring her stories to life. She is currently at the Washington Post, where she directs and hosts the series Anna's Science Magic Show Hooray! The show explores science questions like "Why do we have butts?" or "Why is blood red?" and Rothschild regularly answers questions submitted by the audience. She is also the creator of the YouTube series Gross Science for NOVA and PBS Digital Studios. Rothschild has won multiple awards for her work, including the 2016 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award for Children's Science News. She has an MA in science journalism from New York University and a BA in biology from Brown University.

More profile about the speaker
Anna Rothschild | Speaker | TED.com