Matthew’s lecture on “What makes great biology?”

I’m out of the office this morning, so Readers’ Wildlife will take a one-day hiatus. But we do have a nice half-hour video lecture from Matthew on “What makes great biology?”.  It’s largely based, as the YouTube notes say, on his interviewing or knowing personally several of the people who have done “great biology”, including Sydney Brenner. That required Matthew to fly to Singapore, where the aging Brenner has retired. What a pair he and Crick were!

As Matthew explained, he gave this talk to an audience, but a recording glitch meant that he had to re-record it in his office. The lecture lays out five characteristics that he sees in great biological research, and he gives examples of each characteristic. Those examples are eclectic, reflecting Matthew’s own interests in genetics and evolution—especially human evolution—as well as his own work on the biology of olfaction.

All the biologists used as examples are still alive save Francis Crick. Eve Marder’s work was new to me, and so I learned something— as you will if you watch it. As you see, Matthew is a lively and engaging speaker.

Note his collection of Stegosaurus toys on the windowsill.


  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted January 23, 2018 at 7:59 am | Permalink


  2. Nikolay Antonov Soserov
    Posted January 23, 2018 at 8:01 am | Permalink


  3. Posted January 23, 2018 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    Will watch as soon as I can! 🙂

    • darrelle
      Posted January 23, 2018 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      Same here.

  4. yiamcross
    Posted January 23, 2018 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Life. Life makes great biology. The tticky part is understanding what it’s all about.

  5. Posted January 23, 2018 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    An 18-year old approached Mozart and asked him to teach him how to compose symphonies. Mozart said sure but we should start with simple chamber pieces. The student said ‘but you were composing symphonies when you were 6!’ Mozart said ‘yes, and I never needed anyone to teach me’

    I loved this video but I don’t think you can teach someone how to do good science. Its like inspiration. It either comes on its own or it doesn’t come at all.

  6. Posted January 23, 2018 at 9:26 am | Permalink


  7. Steve Pollard
    Posted January 23, 2018 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Utterly fascinating. I loved hearing the words of Crick and Brenner; and learning about Matthew’s work on androstenone receptors in Neanderthals and Denisovans.

    Matthew’s list of what is needed to be a great biologist applies to pretty well any science. As regards his sixth requirement – luck – I am reminded of the quote originally attributed to golfer Ben Hogan: “The more I practice, the luckier I get”. If you persevere, and perfect your skills, you will create your own luck. Even truer in science than in golf!

    • darrelle
      Posted January 23, 2018 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      In addition to increasing your chances of encountering (experiencing?) luck, being well practiced also leaves you better capable of making something of it when it does happen to you.

      To paraphrase Churchill, “Men occasionally stumble over luck but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened.”

  8. Liz
    Posted January 23, 2018 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    This is very interesting. I pay attention to Seth Lloyd and research on quantum properties in photosynthesis, birds, and sense of smell. I went to go find an article to reference and Sean Carroll actually has an article on this.

    “…apparently fruit flies can smell the difference between hydrogen and deuterium (chemically identical, but tiny differences in atomic energy levels from having an extra neutron in the nucleus).”

    Separately, I have my own questions about non-olfactory scents. The study with the receptors in the Neanderthals and Denisovans is fascinating. I wasn’t aware that there was that much information available on human evolution. I don’t think it matters what the outcome of the study is because someone doing a lit. review will find it useful either way.

  9. GBJames
    Posted January 23, 2018 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Great lecture, Matthew!

    Although I did have to chuckle at the end… “If you can be lucky you’ll have great fortune…”

  10. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 23, 2018 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Wonderful lecture.

    Is it just me, or does Matthew bear a wee bit of a resemblance to a younger, svelter version of the Welsh illustrator Ralph Steadman?

  11. rickflick
    Posted January 23, 2018 at 11:04 am | Permalink


  12. Posted January 23, 2018 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating, thanks for sharing.

  13. Rick McNeil
    Posted January 23, 2018 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Interesting lecture. That part about the significantly reduced biomass of insects is depressing and does seem catastrophic. The study that figured out the decline is impressive, however.

  14. Charles Sawicki
    Posted January 23, 2018 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    eat talk by Matthew. Keep the science coming!
    I wonder if there is a difference in receptor gene frequencies between people who have religions that have banned eating of pork for thousands of years (such as Jews) and others who have not?

    • Charles Sawicki
      Posted January 23, 2018 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      Oops! that’s Great

  15. Posted January 23, 2018 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Very nice. A minor quibble (and proof I actually watched it): Lenski’s long term evolution experiments utilize liquid culture medium in flasks. The plates presumably have to do with some sort off analyses being done on the populations.

    • Posted January 24, 2018 at 3:07 am | Permalink

      Ah! You are quite right! Mea culpa, will change this if I ever give it again. Original pic had flasks in it, too. Showing my microbiological ignorance.

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