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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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The best explanation in the world

Each year, John Brockman's website, The Edge, asks a question and gets many answers to it. This year, the question is: What is your favourite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation? Some of the answers are fascinating. Here's mine:


It's hard now to recall just how mysterious life was on the morning of 28 February 1953 and just how much that had changed by lunchtime. Look back at all the answers to the question "what is life?" from before that and you get a taste of just how we, as a species, floundered. Life consisted of three-dimensional objects of specificity and complexity (mainly proteins). And it copied itself with accuracy. How?

How do you set about making a copy of a three-dimensional object? How to do you grow it and develop it in a predictable way? This is the one scientific question where absolutely nobody came close to guessing the answer. Erwin Schrodinger had a stab, but fell back on quantum mechanics, which was irrelevant. True, he used the phrase "aperiodic crystal" and if you are generous you can see that as a prediction of a linear code, but I think that's stretching generosity.


Indeed, the problem had just got even more baffling thanks to the realization that DNA played a crucial role-and DNA was monotonously simple. All the explanations of life before 28 Feb 1953 are hand-waving waffle and might as well speak of protoplasm and vital sparks for all the insights they gave.


Then came the double helix and the immediate understanding that, as Crick wrote to his son a few weeks later, "some sort of code"-digital, linear two-dimensional, combinatorially infinite and instantly self-replicating-was all the explanation you needed. Never has a mystery seemed more baffling in the morning and an explanation more obvious in the afternoon.


Here's part of Francis Crick's letter, 17 March 1953:


"My dear Michael,
Jim Watson and I have probably made a most important discovery...Now we believe that the DNA is a code. That is, the order of the bases (the letters) makes one gene different from another gene (just as one page pf print is different from another). You can see how Nature makes copies of the genes. Because if the two chains unwind into two separate chains, and if each chain makes another chain come together on it, then because A always goes with T, and G with C, we shall get two copies where we had one before. In other words, we think we have found the basic copying mechanism by which life comes from life...You can understand we are excited."