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TED Radio Hour / Small But Mighty | TED Radio Hour

Small But Mighty | TED Radio Hour

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In this episode of the TED Radio Hour, we explore the world of microscopic organisms and the impact they have on our lives. From the incredible abilities of bacteria and fungi to the ways language shapes our thoughts and culture, this episode uncovers the hidden power of the small and mighty.

Main Takeaways

The Marvels of Microbes

  • Over 100 billion bacterial cells live on our face, including fungi and face mites.
  • Microbiologist Ann Madden fell in love with microbiology after studying venomous snakes and poison dart frogs in the jungle.
  • Microscopic species are everywhere, and we barely know 1-10% of what they are capable of.
  • Many of these species can do remarkable things but never get credit for it.
  • Microbes can both hurt and help humans, and there are many powerful microbes around us that are not devastating.

Microbes as Problem Solvers

  • Microbes in our dust bunnies are the source of many antibiotics that have been saving lives for a long time.
  • One strategy to find microbes with medicinal uses is to look for species that are related to other microbes that can do it.
  • Microscopic creatures as problem solvers: microbes have the ability to transform their environment with an arsenal of chemical tools, meaning they can eat everything from toxic waste to plastic and could potentially help solve problems such as pollution and war.
  • Plastic-eating microbes: scientists have found microbes that are adept at breaking down plastics, offering hope for more sustainable materials in the future.
  • Microbes can generate polylactic acid (PLA), which is a biodegradable plastic-like filament used in 3D printers.

The Power of Language

  • Language and culture can influence how we perceive and process information.
  • People who speak languages that require them to use cardinal directions stay oriented better than we used to think humans could.
  • Language allows us to recombine elements in infinite new ways and create new ideas on the spot.
  • Language shapes thought, similar to how physical exercise changes the way the body looks and acts.
  • Different languages have different ways of describing events, which can affect memory and eyewitness testimony.

Seeking Help and Overcoming Taboos

  • Asking for help can be difficult, even for young children who are usually independent.
  • Teachers need to pay attention to subtle signs when a child needs help, even if they seem independent.
  • Admitting vulnerability can feel weak, but it’s important to seek help.
  • Sharing personal stories can help relieve the fear of judgment and encourage others to seek help.
  • Seeking professional help, like therapy, is important and should be destigmatized.

Rats and Landmine Detection

  • Rats have been trained to sniff out landmines in former war zones.
  • Bart Weetjens founded the organization APOPO to clear landmines using rats.
  • Landmines form a structural barrier to development and are a problem in developing countries.
  • Rats were chosen as detectors because they are sensitive to smell and can be trained using a clicker and food reward.
  • The use of rats in Mozambique has reduced the cost per square meter and empowered vulnerable communities.


The Marvels of Microbes

Microbes, such as bacteria and fungi, are incredibly diverse and play a vital role in our lives. They can both harm and help us, and there are countless species that remain undiscovered. Microbes have the potential to provide us with new technologies and solutions to various problems, from antibiotic production to environmental cleanup.

The Power of Language

Language not only allows us to communicate but also shapes our thoughts and perceptions. Different languages have unique ways of describing events and can influence our memory and decision-making. Language is a powerful tool that influences our culture and identity.

Seeking Help and Overcoming Taboos

Asking for help can be challenging, but it is crucial to overcome the fear of judgment and seek support when needed. Sharing personal stories and seeking professional help, such as therapy, can lead to healing and growth.

Rats and Landmine Detection

Rats have proven to be effective in detecting landmines, offering a cost-effective solution to the global problem of landmine contamination. By training rats to sniff out explosives, organizations like APOPO are making significant progress in clearing landmines and empowering affected communities.


From the hidden world of microbes to the impact of language and the importance of seeking help, this episode of the TED Radio Hour highlights the incredible capabilities of the small and mighty. By understanding and harnessing the power of these microscopic organisms, we can create a better future for ourselves and the planet.

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