The secrets of life – two videos

July 29, 2015 • 8:16 am

by Matthew Cobb

In June, the Royal Institution in London hosted two talks about the origins of life, one by myself, the other by Nick Lane of UCL. The talks were partly a way of publicising our books (my Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code, and Nick’s The Vital Question: Why Is Life the Way It Is?), but they were also an opportunity for us to speak at one of the world’s most prestigious venues for science communication – this is the place where Faraday and Davy spoke in the 19th century, and which still hosts the Annual Christmas Lectures, given by a leading scientist and aimed at younger viewers.

The RI is a resolutely modern institution, so they filmed the two talks and they’ve now been posted on YouTube. Here they are, for your delectation – you can get an idea of what our books are about, and some glimpse into the possible explanations for why life is the way that it is. Each video lasts about 30 minutes. Our books are published on both sides of the Atlantic.


30 thoughts on “The secrets of life – two videos

  1. I’m in the middle (almost exactly the middle) of Matthew’s new book Life’s Greatest Secret and I give it my highest recommendation. Wonderful stuff. Well done Matthew and thank you!

  2. Excellent. I am just today leaving for a vacation, and these will be perfect viewing while hanging out.
    Matthew, where did you get that shirt? It is the Shirt That I Must Have.

  3. Interesting interview with Nobel prize winning geneticist Jack Szostak in the Washington Post.

    The money quote:

    So you build this little blob that starts moving. You’ve created life. Are there any philosophical issues that come along with that?

    What I hope this will show people is that there is a perfectly natural progression from chemistry to life and that the origin of life is not something magical. You don’t need a supernatural explanation. It’s just a natural process. Whether that will influence the way people think, maybe not.

    1. It is the “Poof, the magic dragon” moment.

      You know you started with planet formation from natural processes, and on at least one planet which had an early ocean you observe species formation from natural processes.

      So of course religionists must go “poof [suddenly magic make stuff appears]” – because else it doesn’t make sense for them. (And something similar can be observed for the human species.)

    2. From the link:

      “One of my best students was Jennifer Daudna. She along with Emmanuel [sic] Charpentier, they collaborated and they were on the key paper for CRISPR technology [a method that allows single genes to be edited using a bacteria to cut directly into DNA] and making it widely accessible.”

      While Umeå University has Emanuelle, there is no patent on CRISP/Cas9. (Or other swedish use of the new technology, what I know of. Bummer.) It seems the process is still ongoing: [

  4. I recently bought both books, and am very much looking forward to reading them (when I have the time …). Can I watch the videos or will they give away the endings 🙂 ?

    1. Nick repeatedly says in his talk that you will have to read the book for various key details on the origin of life. So no spoilers to speak of in his very interesting talk.

  5. Very excellent to revisit this story. Thanks SO much for this. Completely unrelated, but I keep seeing Eric Idle in the front row, 2nd from the aisle. (@ 3:41, 4:18, etc.) Did he pop by for a science lecture or two?

    1. Yes, Brian and Eric Idle were indeed there. Nick and I both worked with Brian on his Wonders of Life series, and Eric (who’s a mate of Brian’s) was particularly interested in hearing Nick speak. – MC

      1. Very excellent & lucid presentation, Matthew! I had plumb forgotten two central parts of the story: Gamov’s contribution, and the fact that I was alive for a 3-year span with the code unbroken (64-67). And much of the story was news to me, and very, very funny. In Boulder CO (where I completed my biochem BA in ’86), I spent a lot of time in the Gamov Tower, where the best science lecture halls there exist. Then, we were still talking about the “degenerate” code, which occasionally provided joke material. It is a bit mind-blowing to think that I was learning molecular genetics when the code itself was less than 20 years old. It was around that time that my thermo prof’s husband, Thomas Cech, would be chipping away at the armor of the “Central Dogma” a teeny bit with the discovery that RNA could catalyse it’s own transcription. Tough to believe that was all 30 years ago now… (looks at watch)

        1. Yeah, the short period between this history and mine became graspable. No wonder my university made such a huge thing of molecular biology at the time.

          Both presentations were very good. Matthew is a bloke with a huge funny bone, and Lane likes sleight of hands. =D (Lane tried to put away the slight decrease in transition distance between eukaryotes and archaea with the discovery of the Lokiarchaea. But every decrease is interesting and a test of his group’s work.)

          But I don’t see how you can say that the discovery of RNA-dependent replicase would chip away from the take of Matthew’s presentation on the central dogma hypothesis? It was up there on the slide and explicitly described by Matthew, of how sequence information are irreversibly put into proteins.

          1. Yes – it doesn’t chip away at the big picture: that sequence info are put irreversibly into proteins… it’s just at the time, during discussions of the hypothesis, the arrows in the diagram were accompanied by little descriptions of the proteins involved, like how every process was catalysed by enzymes, all of which were proteins. Unbeknownst to me at the time, and in the same department I was studying in, the corollary that all enzymes were proteins was the little piece of the puzzle that was taking a hit. And before that, I think was the discovery that the DNARNA pathway was reversible (mostly in retroviruses, as it turned out), which was also (unsurprisingly) not a part of the original conception of the hypothesis. But these are both caveats to the big picture — one involving an additional (usually broken) arrow pointing back to DNA from RNA, and another involving a footnote to the effect that RNA acts as its own enzyme. Teeny chinks, both of which do not affect the message Matthew was getting at.

        2. I am starting to remember now, and Matthew can put me right. But didn’t Matthew publish an article on how Crick suggested the hypothesis of irreversible sequence transfer into proteins and Watson the sequential (DNA -> RNA -> protein) sequence transfer hypothesis, and how people often confuses this?

          The first hypothesis would be untouched by discovering, say, RNA-dependent RNA replicases. The second would be restricted to a main mode of transfer by such discoveries. Is that what you were referring to?

  6. Matthew rightly clarifies that “mechanistic language” such as “computer,” “machine,” and the like are metaphors and not to be taken literally. As culture moves on so does the language and what metaphors work for one moment in history may well be irrelevant for another. Too often, especially in the media, such mechanistic terminology is taken literally.

    1. I really see no problem. Metaphors are by definition never to be taken literally. But the terms “computer” and “machines” used as abstractions are extremely useful explaining the kind of things we are dealing with. And we can take them literally if these abstractions really exist (in the real world).

      Some illustration:

      This is true for all machines like cars and cells and people:

      “A machine is a tool containing one or more parts that uses energy to perform an intended action.”

      This is true for cell phones and brains:

      “A computer is a machine that can be programmed to carry out a set of arithmetic or logical operations.”

      Definitions from wikipedia.

  7. Sorry, I thought Nick’s talk was slow & boring. No need to have UCL’s logo dominating every slide.

    Matthew’s talk is well worth a watch!

  8. Good lecture Matthew – and it was refreshing to see someone get the Central Dogma correct for a change.

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