Great Ideas of Biology – 9th Simonyi Anniversary Lecture
At Oxford Playhouse on Friday 23rd November 2007 Richard Dawkins hosted the penultimate Simonyi Lecture, given by Sir Paul Nurse – Nobel Laureate for his discoveries on cell division that will lead to breakthroughs in cancer research. Next year Professor Dawkins will retire from the Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford – the last speaker in 2008 will be Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson though hopefully Dawkin’s successor may choose to continue such talks.
Sir Paul has been described as both the rock star of scientists and the David Beckham of science. What certainly does describe him well is that he has a very approachable manner, self depreciating humour – especially when it comes to his lack of foreign language skills which if the university admission system for science had not been bent to allow him to study at Birmingham we may have lost one of the best scientists this country has produced in the post war period.
From starting out as a Guinness brewery technician through to his fairly recent discovery that whom he thought was his older sister was actually his birth mother, Director General of what would become Cancer Research UK and currently the President of Rockefeller in New York - one wonders what will be next.
Sir Paul’s talk entitled “The Great Ideas of Biology” (The Romanes Lecture for 2003) is about how the discovery of the cell revolutionised biology and its consequences for the future. He did so in such a manner that he took the audience with him – even that in the Q and A someone that said they did not agree with evolution as the explanation could accept it the way he had explained it in terms of information and networking at the cellular level and the impact on a species.
Sir Paul challenged the idiosyncratic stamp collecting habits of biology by explaining four great ideas of biology that explained the nature of life and a fifth one that was still an idea in progress. Rather than being mundane biology had a lot to say about what life is, but perhaps some scientists were stuck in a rut in thinking that would need to be got out of for the fifth idea and it’s implications to really come through:
- The Cell – basic unit of life underpins all reproduction and development (implications for modern age stem cells).
- The Gene – basis of heredity. From genotype to phenotype (implications for what we are).
- Evolution by Natural Selection – life evolves, the mechanisms of natural selection. Kin selection and common descent (implications on altruism and morality – humans stewards of the natural world).
- Life as Chemistry – Chemistry and physics are the mechanistic basis of life. Allowing the understanding of many diseases (central to medicine and pharmaceutical industry).
- Biology as an organised system – a developing idea attempting to explain the chemical reactions in a cell as a network of a complex system that goes against intuitive understanding of the natural world for both lay people and scientists (it may be complex but it will lead to new discoveries and medical advances).
It is a testament to Sir Paul’s lecturing ability that even without an academic understanding of biology, step by step it was possible to follow the five themes of his talk. I hope that soon the Richard Dawkins site will have the video we shot of the lecture up on the site.
For the shoot a big thank you to the Richard Dawkins Foundation, Richard Dawkins and Sir Paul Nurse, Tim Boyd at the Oxford Playhouse and the staff. And special mention to my partners in crime Mat and Hyrax whose fellowship makes ideas a practical reality.