Sydney Ideas - The Secret Life of Air

12 October 2016

The Secret Life of Air: why our ignorance of biodiversity poses both enormous opportunities for discovery and threats to the persistence of civilisation.

Professor Robert Dunn, Applied Ecology at North Carolina State University

The 2016 Murray Lecture presented by the School of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Sydney

Air is full of life. Most of this life is unstudied and yet we know that nearly every breath you breathe contains both species that you depend on for life and also species with the ability to kill you.

New technologies are allowing us to see the life on, in and around ourselves in new ways. But the questions these technologies raise are old ones. What species do we want to live with? How do we manage the life around us? How do we favour beneficial species and deter dangerous ones. We are early in our understanding of how to make these decisions, how best to garden the life around us, whether in the air or anywhere else. Yet, at the same time we have changed so much about the living world that we must make major decisions now or face the consequences.

I will discuss what we know about what the average person can do to favour healthier species around them and also what people can do to help us to understand the shimmering diversity of life that exists everywhere we go. In the end, the key to making wise decisions about the life around us will be sharing what we know as widely as possible, but also sharing the ability to know more.


Professor Robert Dunn is a Professor of Applied Ecology at North Carolina State University. He studies the species that surround us in our everyday lives; in our backyards, in our houses, or even in our belly-buttons! Professor Dunn's work on biological diversity (and particularly his writing for general audiences) has led to many opportunities to impact teachers, students and the public. Rob Dunn Lab.

His work brings to a broad audience the complicated consequences of changing interactions among species, whether those species are ants and seeds or humans and their gut microbes. Professor Dunn has also authored several books including The Man Who Touched His Own Heart and The Wild Life of Our Bodies.

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