The Garrulous Jay – What Is Life?

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Last week I had the privilege of attending a lecture by Sir Paul Nurse. Sir Paul is a Nobel prize-winning geneticist, CEO of the Francis Crick Institute, a former President of the Royal Society and boasts more than 70 honorary degrees. He happens, incidentally, to be Norfolk born and bred too.

Sir Paul addressed the question “What Is Life?” A question which he himself acknowledged is easy to ask but somewhat harder to answer.

His talk was inspiring in its breadth as well as his own ability to tackle a question of such profundity in a way that made it accessible to a non-academic audience, and it left me with a number of valuable takeaways.

The first was how humbling it was to be reminded that, at least in Sir Paul’s view, “all cells come from cells”. In other words, every lifeform on the planet is derived from a previous lifeform and therefore shares a comment origin. At a time of mounting concern about a catastrophic loss of biodiversity, it was chastening to be reminded of the responsibility we all owe to the other lifeforms with which we share our world: we are all related!

The next was the importance of having a broad understanding of the world. Although Sir Paul has clearly focused his academic research in specific areas (mainly yeast apparently), it struck me that it was in part his ability to synthesise his knowledge of chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics and data science that had allowed him to be so successful.

We often decry the jack-of-all-trades and are encouraged to become ‘masters’ in a particular field. But Sir Paul’s experience seemed to argue against over-specialising. In a world where we are told that the pace of change is accelerating and many of the jobs of tomorrow don’t exist today, I think this is worth bearing in mind.

But I also think this point about not being unduly focused has wider application too. I suppose it can be summarised in that old saying “there’s more to life than work”.

In Sir Paul’s case it was evident in his passion for politics and his desire to advance the place of the UK in the global scientific community… He was off to meet the Chancellor tomorrow and argued passionately last night for the need to fund education and research to build future economic success. He is clearly not a man happy to sit quietly in his ivory tower.

It also made me realise that the reason I was sat in Lecture Theatre 1 at the UEA was because I shared this view…on a rather less exalted level. Not only do I enjoy my work – no really, I do – but I also recognise that there’s more to life, and by having experiences beyond the day job I may actually become more effective when I get back to my desk.

So I suppose Sir Paul’s lecture answered the question he posed in perhaps more ways than he had intended.