Alexander Fleming didn’t tidy up his lab before leaving on vacation. He left the window open, and his petri dishes full of Staphylococcus bacteria remained scattered on the tabletop. Fleming departs on vacation, and when he retuns to his lab he decides to clean the lab. He inspects each dish before submerging it in cleaning solution, and most are covered with a lush lawn of staph bacteria. BUT, he comes upon a dish where the lawn of bacteria is not so lush. There appear to be circular areas where the staph is not growing.
Like any good scientist, Fleming grabs his microscope. He finds that the staph is dying at an unprecedented rate. In these circles, there is virtually no living staph. At the center of these circles are specks of mold. They must have blown in through the window and landed in his petri dishes. But the mold is DESTROYING the staph, savagely murdering every staph in the area. This is great news if you’re Alexander Fleming, or if you’re a human being. The mold Fleming found is called Penicillium, and it’s the basis for penicillin.
Welcome back to the Bulletin. This week, all the stories I’ll share with you revolve around a theme. The theme is, “It’s the little things.”
A little mold
Fleming published his findings on Penicillium and Staphylococcus in 1929. He realized that when Penicillium was grown in a certain substrate, it would produce an antibiotic substance, what Fleming called penicillin. It wasn’t until 1938, with the help of chemists, that penicillin was purified and tested, and not until 1941 that a patient received penicillin as treatment. It took the devestation of World War II to convince governments to fund the mass production of penicillin, but once they did production skyrocketed. As researchers and army doctors realized penicillin could be used to treat wounds, production leapt to 650 BILLION units PER MONTH by the end of the war in 1945. It is estimated that Fleming’s discovery of a little mold saved 200 million lives to date.
Ever had strep throat, staph infection, scarlet fever, stomach ulcers, chlamydia, gangrene, tooth abscesses, lyme disease, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, pneumonia, or necrotizing fasciitis? Still alive? Thank Fleming.
Fleming’s story is the first of a couple cool stories on a recent Radiolab episode. Check it out if you want to learn more.
There are certain things that once you know them about a song, you can’t unhear them. Lemme show you what I mean with 2 examples (both great songs in their own rights btw).
In the tUnE-yArDs song, “Water Fountain,” the clanking percussion is from an aluminum water bottle Merrill Garbus found at a thrift store.
Knowing about these little sounds brings me so much pleasure every time I hear them. There’s something about the process and the extra layer of humanity it brings to the music. These are real people making sounds with what they have.
Little things that make your day
When dishes come out clean the first time you rinse them. Having a gym partner. Getting a clean, new train on the metro. Riding your bike through 4 green lights in a row. Anytime food/drink is “on the house.” A message from a friend you haven’t heard from in a while. Hearing your roommate discover that “Lando is kind of a dick!” because this is the first time he has seen Star Wars. (He also told us, “never tell me the odds!”)
(Mildly entertaining: There’s this guy who has written one awesome thing a day since 2008. Here are the top 1000 awesome things.)
Our little world
“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on the mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
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Love you guys. Have a good week!