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The Templeton Ideas Podcast is a show about the most awe-inspiring ideas in our world and the people who investigate them.

Transcripts of our episodes are made available as soon as possible. They are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

Philip Ball is a science writer based in the UK. With a degree in chemistry and a doctorate in physics, he served as an editor of the journal Nature for over 20 years. He has authored nearly 30 books on a wide range of scientific and historical subjects, including H2O: A Biography of Water, How to Grow a Human, and The Book of Minds. His newest book is entitled How Life Works: A User’s Guide to the New Biology. Philip joins the podcast to discuss his 30-year journey of science writing. In his new book How Life Works, he refutes the popular metaphors that DNA is like a blueprint or instruction manual, and he contends that even the simplest organisms construct meaning from their complex environments.

Tom: Phil, I’m going to begin by welcoming you to the Templeton Ideas podcast.

Phillip: Thank you, Tom. Lovely to be here.

Tom: Well, I’m going to start off by asking you some personal questions. First, tell me, where did you grow up and what did you love to do as a kid?

Phillip: I was born and grew up on an island off the south of England, the Isle of Wight. So, it was literally an insular place, right? And every time I go back there now, I feel like I’m going back 30 years in time, which has its good aspects and its bad aspects. It was a fantastic place in some ways to grow up. It was rural. I could sort of venture out by myself all over the island. There were beaches, but it also meant that the world was very small. By the time I finally left to go to college when I was 16, I was so ready to get away from there.

But it’s lovely to still go back there. And I was probably a bit of an unusual child. I certainly came to science at a very early stage, and this would have been in the late 1960s, early 1970s, when popular science as a genre for kids and other people to read about simply didn’t really exist.

So, it was no easy task if you were interested in science to find out about stuff. In 1972, I was sent by my parents to a computing course, by which I mean, the computer sat in an entire room, of course, that we never saw.

What we did was write out our code or programming as we then called it on cards, by hand, which were then punched into whole cards. Then we got back this stack of punched cards overnight. It was fed into the computer. The next day, you got your readout and you found you had to debug.

It was fantastic. That was my introduction to computing. But I was so glad that, at that young age, I got a glimpse into really the birth of computing, and not just as an idea, but as a real technology.

Tom: Well, it sounds like your sort of innate internal curiosity of science, was strong. Did your early childhood education (elementary, secondary schooling) did that stimulate your curiosity as well? Or was it really, you had to get to university to kind of find the people that were going to stoke the fire you had inside of you.

Phillip: Well, it was a very, standard education, in the sense that I went to a state school, what we call comprehensive school. So, it’s where all the kids went from the neighborhood, but this is of course the crucial thing. I had good teachers. In particular, all three of the teachers I had in chemistry, which was the subject I studied at, Oxford, all of them were in one way or another. So it was that really that which helped to really spark my curiosity and the fact that I was given the freedom to go into the labs in the lunchtime and do kind of crazy stuff.

I could “borrow”, in inverted commas, chemicals from school, bring them home and it was the classic sort of trying things out in a way that I think it’s just much harder to do these days, because there is less practical stuff. There’s less access to chemicals. I mean, it rang a lot of bells for me when I read Oliver Sack’s fantastic autobiography, Uncle Tungsten, which talks about his chemical childhood. And you know, and Oliver was famously entranced by chemistry. That was his big thing in his youth. And in those days, you could do even more.

Those are the ways, I mean, certainly for me, those are the ways to, you know, ignite your, your curiosity and your wonder. I’ve never forgotten, for example, the experience of sticking my finger into a bowl of mercury, which we could do, again, at school at that time. The sensation of it. This stuff that pushes back against your hand. It’s liquid, but it doesn’t wet it [your hand]. It sort of retreats from your hand. It’s the most unearthly stuff. So, it’s experiences like that, the tactile experiences of chemistry that got me interested in studying it at university.

Tom: Now, when did your passion for writing develop? Was that also at an early age, or did that come, later?

Phillip: It was at an early age. For as long as I can remember. I wrote and wrote and wrote when I was at school. And I continued to do that, through my college years. But the striking thing was that it never occurred to me that one could combine that with an interest in science. That only happened as I was coming to the end of my PhD. I did a PhD in theoretical physics, at the University of Bristol and it was, coming to an end there. I had to write up my thesis. Most people hate doing that. And I found I quite liked it.

And I began thinking, well, maybe this is something I could do. Maybe I could get a job in scientific publishing of some sort. That was kind of the extent of what I was imagining. But, you know, no one had ever suggested to me that you could write about science as a living.

So, it was truly wonderful to find that I could do that and all the more. So because I was incredibly lucky that just as I started looking for opportunities of that sort, an opening came up, at the science journal Nature, which, is just the place to work if you’re interested in communicating science or interested in publishing science or writing about science.

And it was a slot that I happened to fill. They needed someone who knew about physical sciences, and I’d studied physics and chemistry, so I was lucky enough to get that position. And, from there, doors opened. Being at a place like Nature just has that effect. If I approached a newspaper and said, “would you be interested in me writing about this?”, they’d at least give me a hearing.

Tom: So, you completed your doctorate in physics. You found this seemingly a perfect fit for you at the journal Nature, editing, and being exposed to a much wider variety of topics and subject material than if you had been in your own laboratory. When did you write your first book? Tell me a little bit about the interplay between serving as an editor and then doing your own writing.

Phillip: I started working at Nature in 1988, in those days, Nature was just a journal. There wasn’t this vast publishing empire of all these sister journals, of which there seemed to be a new one every week now. It was just a single journal run out of a relatively tiny office, on a back street in London, just off the Strand. Everyone essentially sat in that same open plan office. You interacted with everyone. I started training as a sub-editor.

And I’m so glad I did. To get that training in how to make words work and what to look at, how to edit, how to make a sentence work better than it does when it begins. And literally to put together type. I mean, in those days we were still typesetting in the old-fashioned way of literally going to a printer or, on the night of the news when it had to be set at the last minute and it was hot metal literally, you’d be setting things on page.

That was something that I did do sometimes. So again, seeing that, having that chance of seeing the old days of, the print industry as it had been, to some extent, ever since Dickens Day, if not earlier, was wonderful, too. The editor’s job wasn’t really a writing job, it was primarily about selecting which papers the journal would publish, sending them out for peer review, and making interpretations of what the referees had said to decide whether we should publish this or not.

But it meant also doing some editing work on the papers, so there was that aspect to it. But being at the journal meant that if I wanted to write, then I could. I did write for Nature itself, but I also started, writing journalism for newspapers. Occasionally, I think I’d do bits of radio because the BBC in those days was almost literally just across the road from Nature.

I realized that I wanted to do more of this, that I wanted to do more writing. And so, in probably 1993 I decided I’d write a book about chemistry. I was doing that while working full-time as a nature editor. And when I say full-time, it was full-time and a half. Cause it was a crazy job. It was fantastic in many ways, but boy, were the hours long and the work demanding. And, you know, within this, I’d sort of be getting up at five in the morning to do an hour’s writing or, a couple of hours writing before saying off for work. And I got the book done that way, but I felt afterward, never again, you know. I can’t write under those circumstances. So, I negotiated with Nature to go part-time after that. But it must have been six or seven years. Until I figured, you know, this is, what I want to do. And I didn’t quite have the nerve to go completely freelance at that stage. So, I stayed on writing news for Nature for one day a week, but eventually, I cut the thread and went freelance. I’ve not looked back ever since.

Tom: So, you said when you were growing up there wasn’t a lot of popular science writing. I’m wondering as, as you got into it yourself, did other people emerge that inspired you, that you, wanted to emulate? Were you just trying to blaze like a new genre? Tell me a little bit about writing in a way that you didn’t see when you were growing up.

Phillip: Well, I think people often say now that the 1980s and maybe the early 1990s was a bit of a golden age for popular science. It was really when the genre started to be invented in the form that we know it now, a lot of people might think back to a book like, Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene in the mid-1970s, which was a real trailblazer in that. There were very few books about science at that time that have the sort of impact that that one did.

At first, that’s kind of what I wanted to do. I wanted to write about science in a way that was accessible to a general audience. And my first two or three books tried to do that to various degrees of success.

But I realized quite quickly that what I wanted to do was a bit different from that. I found that I was looking for topics that weren’t confined to a particular field of science. So, one of the early books I wrote was about pattern formation in nature. Where pattern, order, and regularities come from in nature, whether that’s inorganic nature. So, things like sand dunes and sand ripples or the living world.

Animal pigmentation patterns, even the shapes of animal bodies, they’re patterned to a degree. So, this was a topic that ranged across disciplines and I kind of figured this was much more satisfying.

I then wrote a book about water, which touches on, geology, planetary science, environmental stuff, political issues, with water conflicts, but also biology and fundamental chemistry. I think that was when I started to get a sense of wanting to go beyond what was often a kind of narrow genre of a book about genes, a book about evolution, a book about black holes.

I wanted to find topics that had a greater breadth. And as that developed, I found increasingly, that I also wanted to bring in the history of science, and then beyond that, to bring in the cultural aspects of science, not just how science has affected culture, but the reverse. I think this is something that’s often overlooked.

Tom: Well, you’ve written, many books on many different topics. Does any one of those book projects stand out to you as being particularly meaningful?

Phillip: There’s really, three books that I think of as a loosely connected trio, in that they all try to do similar things with three different concepts.

There was one I wrote called Unnatural, which looked at the cultural history of that idea. What do we mean when we call something “unnatural”? What are we trying to say about it? So, it, led from, ideas about creating life in ancient Greece and in medieval times, to how this has sort of fed through to narratives about Frankenstein and unnatural creation.

And the way our societies received things like IVF and reproductive technologies generally in their early days. The more I looked at this, it seemed to me that it was important that we acknowledge these very deep-seated often prejudices about what we consider “natural”. This is an important facet of how we think about reproductive technologies and biotechnologies generally today.

Then I wrote a book about curiosity. This was very much looking at what happened to curiosity in the 17th century, which some people call the scientific revolution. I think that was the time when we can see curiosity changing from being a vice, being interested in things that you have no business in being interested in, to being a virtue, exploring everything you can about the world. So that nothing is too small, or too mean, or too dirty to warrant your intellectual attention.

And then I wrote a book about the concept of invisibility, and that was a cultural history of invisibility, starting at Plato’s Ring of Gage. It’s the original sort of invisibility story through HG Well’s Invisible Man to modern technologies,  which use invisibility as a trope or a metaphor to some degree, making these things called metamaterials, which can render objects invisible, not generally to visible light, but to radar and to longer wavelength light.

You know, I wanted to make the point that this notion that science has adopted and, brought in to talk about research that is being done, brings with it, a whole bunch of cultural baggage, that, you must deal with, or you must recognize is there.

So, these three books try to, complicate these ideas of invisibility and unnaturalness and, curiosity to explore them as cultural ideas and to see how they’ve informed science. So that kind of thing is what I’m really interested in doing.

And yeah, each of these three books does that to some degree.

Tom: Coming up.

I’ve noticed in recent years; you’ve written several books that all focus on the life sciences. I’m thinking the Book of minds, how to grow a human, and your newest book, How Life Works, which I want to talk about in detail. Did you make a conscious? pivot or focus to, to look deeply into the life sciences at a certain point, or is this a natural trajectory of, what you’ve been doing, all along?

Phillip: feels like it was a natural trajectory. I guess I come at it from several angles. I mean, I’d always, to some extent, touched on topics in science at least that, have some life sciences aspect to them. In the book I wrote about water, I had a chapter about water in the cell and went on to explore that more deeply and to write a couple of research papers about it., because what water is doing in the cell is fascinating. It’s so much more than just being this passive solvent for life’s biomolecules. So, I had to think there about. what proteins were really like and what they were doing and how water, affects their interactions, processes that are central to, the molecular mechanics, if you like, of life, in my book about pattern formation, I looked at, how bodies form and how, biological patterns more generally, can arise.

So, it’s always kind of been there. But I think more and more, like a lot of people who’ve come from a training in physical sciences, it just seems that the life sciences are where the interesting questions lie. And they can benefit from a careful a judicious application of ideas from the physical sciences. And sometimes, that happens in a way that isn’t at all judicious. And physicists will blunder into biology and tell them they’re going to sort it all out with these grand, theories that don’t help biologists, one inch. But there is, very clearly a lot of physics and chemistry going on in, biology.

So, to some extent I’m coming at it from that angle. But I think it’s kind of the ultimate complex system. I became interested in how complex systems work and, biology is, more complex than anything else that we’ve ever, invented.

It represents this wonderful challenge. But I think certainly the latest book goes all the way back to my work as a Nature editor when the human genome project was just getting going and for a while. It seemed as though all the questions were going to be answered by understanding the genome and You know, I ncreasingly, I started to realize that doesn’t seem to be happening: that what we’re finding is that the story is more complicated than that. This gene that we thought did X in an organism seems to be implicated also in Y, which has no obvious connection to X at all.

So, what’s going on? And this just happened again and again and again. So, I’d had this question at the back of my mind ever since those days. And it’s only recently, in the last ten years or so, that we’ve started to be able to say something meaningful, about this will really make progress on these questions of biological complexity.

Tom: Well, it’s a good segue here. I want to focus on your new book How Life Works: A User’s Guide to the New Biology, and I want to start with metaphor because I think that’s in popular lore what we hear of first, with the human genome project with the popularity of books by Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. We hear these metaphors repeated often enough, they almost seem like reality. So, we think of our, genome, our DNA as a blueprint for making copies of an organism. We have something called, the genetic code. And we almost forget that it’s not actually computer code, but we say it often enough and it sounds like it is. Can you tell me a little bit, where do, these two metaphors, either genome as a blueprint, or genetics as a code, what do they get right, and then where do they come up short?

Phillip: First, it’s probably important to say we need metaphors like this. Not just in science, not just in biology, but in all of science and in all of life, our language is constantly using metaphors. So, there’s nothing wrong. In fact, there’s everything essential in using metaphors. But that can come at a cost. You know, there’s this old quote that some people attribute to the, cyberneticist Norbert Wiener, the price of metaphor is eternal vigilance, so, you’ve got to keep an eye on them, basically.

And I think that we very easily lose sight of them. And then they become, what is sometimes called dead metaphors, which means not that they’re not used anymore, but something far worse than that, that we’ve forgotten that they’re a metaphor. And that’s exactly, I think, what happened with the idea of a genetic blueprint.

The historian and philosopher of science and physicist Evelyn Fox Keller was very good on this and of course, she died very recently. Her writings on this are fantastic. And I think she, illustrated very clearly that this notion of a genetic, blueprint, was never something that was compelled by the science. It was a kind of stopgap. It was a word that we use to cover up a lack of understanding. And, again, this is something we do all the time. This is an essential thing so that you can make progress.

When we first found out that something is encoded in our DNA, and it clearly is encoded. Then it made perfect sense to think, ah, well, what must be encoded there is the plan that makes us and allow. People go ahead and try to figure out the details of that. But as we figured out the details of that, I think it’s become more and more clear that it’s not a plan of how to make us. There is no such plan in the genome.

It can’t be reduced to any one level where you point, and say, here’s the plan, here’s where this thing makes. It’s a hierarchical system with many levels of organization, all of which depend on each other, all of which speak to one another. up and down the levels. And this is what I’m arguing in the book. This is how we need to think about How Life Works. And I tried to sort of step through those levels and see how life unfolds in this much more dynamic, self-organized way.

Tom: A question I want to ask directly about metaphors. You wrote in your book that if we really want to think about the genome as a book, maybe we should think about it more like a dictionary than an instruction manual. What does the metaphor of dictionary convey?

Phillip: I’ve become very wary of metaphors now, because I, you know, I’m now conscious having sort of critiqued them. I think none of them work properly, and everyone that I try to come up with isn’t going to be good.

But I suppose if one, uses this, metaphor instead, at least talks only about the sort of atomistic levels of the process. So, a dictionary will not tell you how language works. You can’t deduce that, from a dictionary. All it can tell you about is the fundamental components of that language, words, which, we can think of as Perhaps proteins or the RNA molecules that do all this functional stuff in the cell.

But there are other things that you need. There are rules of grammar that, you won’t find in the dictionary, that aren’t encoded in the dictionary, that you need to make those words into language, to make them into a sentence that conveys a meaning. I think that’s also a key, that the meaning of a sentence, and certainly the meaning of a book, cannot be deduced from just looking at all the words in there and looking at all their mini meanings and thinking somehow stacking up all those mini meanings will give us, the overall story. So, in that sense, I think it’s hopefully a better metaphor for, life.

Tom: One thing I wonder, I think as humans, we tend to look for who’s in charge, where does the power lie, where are decisions being made, and maybe even going back to Freud or before, there’s a sense of like, okay, your conscious mind is not in charge, there’s something deeper that’s in charge, and I feel like maybe pointing at DNA and genes is like, aha, this is like, where the buck stops here, finally we can see where who or what is responsible. Is that psychologically what we’re longing for? That it makes those metaphors attractive where we try to describe biology that way. To what degree or maybe we are imposing what we long for versus trying to infer from the data that we’re getting.

Phillip: Yeah, I think it’s exactly that. Think it’s perhaps precisely because life is so perplexing, so hard to understand, so phenomenal and so, wondrous, and diverse, that, we desperately have always wanted some way of making sense of that, of looking for a place, you know, a single locus. where we can find the explanation for that. And so, we went through this phase in the 17th, 18th century of saying, it’s a mechanism. we’re just machines. And that is to some extent stayed with us, into the 20th, 21st century, some people will happily talk about us organisms as, machines. But I say in the book, if we’re, machines, we’re not like any machine that we have ever made, so it’s a bit of an empty metaphor, because what are you comparing it to? You’re not comparing it to a computer, or to a piece of clockwork, we’re not that kind of machine. So, we need to get rid of that as a metaphor for life itself.

And it seems to me that, we also need to abandon this notion that somewhere there is a secret of life, hat we will find it if we just look in the right place. What I say in the book is to forget that. We must understand life in its own terms. And in its own terms, it does things in this hierarchy of organization, where nothing is in control. The wonderful thing about it is that somehow it works together as a whole.

The organism and its environment can speak, if you like, can communicate with our genes. It can affect which genes are activated and which are deactivated. and the genes speak back. to the environment. So, this is constant feedback, and we must understand it as a complex system, not as one that has any sort of centralized control.

Tom: I want to bring up with the time we have left, another challenging area. Scientists have long struggled with the question of how do you define life? How do you know when you’re looking at it versus not looking at it? What’s animate and what’s inanimate? it seems like whatever definition we come up with, whether it’s something about replication or metabolism or evolution we find counter examples, But in your book, you describe life differently, and it just kind of caught me by surprise as I read the words, but, I’m going to quote your book and have you reflect on it a little bit. you define life as living entities are generators of meaning. Tell me, where does meaning kind of fit into the life sciences and trying to understand biological organisms?

Phillip: Right. Well, we probably instinctively think of meaning as a much higher level. quality we humans experience meaning, we find things meaningful. But it’s much harder to imagine that a bacterium does, we don’t know for sure whether a bacterium has any kind of experience, but certainly it’s kind of hard to imagine what can be meaningful to a bacterium. But what I’m staying here is that

There is a sense in which even for the most elementary, life forms that we know of, so single celled organisms like bacteria, we can think of them having or constructing a kind of meaning, in the sense that there are aspects of their environment that are more salient to them, that matter more for them. They’ve evolved So that many bacteria will swim towards a source of nutrient; they won’t be guided by a gradient of some other chemical that has no nutritional value to it.

They’ll just ignore that. So that has no meaning to them. And they’re blind to it, you, could say. So, this is what it seems to me. All organisms, even at the most fundamental level, need to be able to do and need to be good at to make their way in the world and to survive. And one thing that they do to do that is to build up representations of the environment around them. Models, if you like, of, what their world is like, and we do that.

We experience certain aspects of the world. We don’t see the x-rays and the cosmic rays that are streaming, around us all the time. We don’t see the infrared radiation. It’s all there, but it’s not meaningful to us. It’s not useful to us, we make this very selective, choice about what in our environment is salient to us and what we’re going to respond to.

So that’s really what I mean. That seems to be the thing that living organisms do. And it seems to me to be a necessary thing for any organism to be able to do if it’s going to be successful.

Tom: With the short time we’ve got remaining, I want to circle back to our earlier personal conversation. You said you grew up in a, kind of a small rural area on an island it’s very different from the world that we know now. Imagine you could get in a time machine and go back and interact with yourself as somebody who has a degree in chemistry and physics who’s written a number of books in this genre that your young self wouldn’t be aware of imagine this conversation between you and your younger self. What kind of questions might he have for you or reactions to the life that you wound up living?

Phillip: Well, that’s a great question. I’d like to think that he would be very excited to discover that it was possible to live this way because, I do consider that what I do is an enormous privilege in the sense that I’m able to make a living writing about. I just love finding out about, that I’m passionate about, that I’m enthusiastic about, and in particular to be able to say to myself, you know what, I think it would be really interesting to dig deep into this concept of invisibility, let’s say, and you know, find out where do the cultural ideas that we have, about that come from?

To spend, you know, several years, exploring that, and then to move on to something else that also interests me. I think I’m extremely lucky to do that. So, I think that my younger self would be excited to find that that’s possible and I think probably excited too to discover what richness is out there.

I think that’s the thing that has fed me in doing this looking into one of these subjects, I’m always surprised by what I find out about it. There’s always a sense of wonder.

Tom: I think, yeah, we’ve changed a lot since we were young. But it seems to me that what you have in common with that young self is this incredible curiosity and joy of learning. That’s something that I think comes through in all your books and something that makes me look forward to each new book that you come out. So, I recommend your books including your new book How Life Works to our listeners, and I thank you for joining our show to discuss it.

Phillip: Thank you so much, Tom. It’s been a real pleasure.