Science talks: 100 of the best

By Grant Jacobs 14/12/2009

Sarah Russel on Best Colleges Online offers a list of 100 Incredible Lectures from the World’s Top Scientists collated from around the WWW.

For something a little more elevated that your usual movie or documentary, you might listen to a Nobel laureate or leading researcher in brain function or a sneak peek at what the future might hold.

A similar bus campaign has recently started in NZ (Source wikipedia)
A similar bus campaign has recently started in NZ (Source wikipedia)

These talks are mostly for general audiences, especially those that are part of the highly-regarded TED lectures.

I’m not going to link the individual talks to encourage readers to explore the full list. To help you locate the talks mentioned below easily, I have given the talk number in brackets.

These are talks, not video shows or documentaries. It’s the thoughts, the ideas that they convey that carries them, not computer graphics or other dramatics, although some have excellent slides.

Let me introduce to you a small selection of these that appealed to me.

Richard Dawkins opens the list, pondering the strangeness of our universe. You’ll probably best know Richard Dawkins as the author of The God Delusion, but to scientists he has a longer history of writing about evolution. Many from a religious background who oppose his views have labelled him arrogant, angry, or worse, but I think you’ll find him modest and witty in the English way. See for yourself. According to Ken, he will be speaking in NZ next year. His applying the Delphi boat notion to ourselves and our memories was particularly thought-provoking for me.

A chemist, Penelope Boston, speaks of how there might be life on Mars (talk 39) and examines the evidence for this. This is a great presentation with personal touches of her own story as well as the science she has studied, including her passion for caving, touching on the origin of life and, of course, life on other planets.

Craig Ventor (Source: wikipedia)
Craig Ventor (Source: wikipedia)

Controversy seems to follow Craig Venter, the man associated with the industrial/commercial approach to aid the Human Genome Project. (The project had already been initiated in England from within the MRC LMB, then the Sanger Centre, with academics from the USA joining, then later Venter’s at the time controversial “business” approach to the task.)

If scientists came into money, most would not opt to retire, but start the projects that they couldn’t do without the cash! I and most of my colleagues would be no different I suspect. With a few lousy hundred thousand, never mind Ventor’s wealth, I’d probably abandon grant applications and be off! Craig Venter has, among other things, being working for some time towards creating synthetic life, which he discusses in his talk (85).

There’s Helen Fisher (talk 92) talking about the changes that the brain goes through when you’re in love .  She ends her talk with an anecdote about why women talk face to face and men talk side by side.

Astronomy is endlessly fascinating. Grappling with this vast world we live in are several talks. I like the delivery style of ‘What is a star?’ (47, this also looks at how we all fit into the universe), but other topics will appeal to others.

My original background is in computational structural biology. (I say “originally” as New Zealand biology makes little use of this background, to my frustration). One application of this area is working towards designing new drugs through a very detailed understanding of the how the molecules drugs target work. One talk (19) examines this, but I haven’t been able to sample this, as I don’t have the plug-in needed to play it. (I could just use another browser or install the plug-in, but time is pressing.)

Unfortunately two more biology talks I’d check suffer the same fate, being from the same host site. Talk 21 looks at the evolution of us humans, and talk 25 looks at the origin of the human mind and how it continues to evolve.

I’ll leave you with a caution that a small number of the things said aren’t accepted as true now, bear in mind when these talks were given as science is a moving target. (Kary Mullis in particular is known for straying outside his “patch” in ways that those researching that area disagree with!)

Other entertainment or fun posts in Code for life:

Neti pots now validated as sound science?

Royal science

Snake coughs up new species

Craziest research paper titles, awards and authors

Visual illusions, change blindness and autism

World’s largest bacteria

Fellatio by Fruit Bats Prolongs Copulation Time

Monkey business, or is my uncle also my Dad?

Small world pictures

Link to 100 talk post via @timoreilly (Head & founder of O’Reilly books.)

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