Answers from the brimstone butterfly

It was a delicate butterfly. The obvious difference between humans and moths and, on the other hand, the similarities between them, for example in the perception of the environment and in the reaction to changes, gave the British biologist and Nobel Prize winner Paul Nurse the idea to ask himself: “What actually is life? “

To his astonishment, he had to realize that there is still no standard definition for the phenomenon of life. The answers in his book are therefore his very personal answers. And the brimstone butterfly accompanies him as an example through “the five central ideas of biology”.

Nurse starts with the cell and moves through genes and evolution to higher levels of complexity: first to understanding life as chemistry and finally as information. In humans and brimstone butterflies, this is the result of billions of cells in the nervous system and sensory organs working together.

Nurse never gets into lecturing. He tells of adventures in the laboratory, of painful disappointments, but also of “unforgettable moments of new knowledge”. Like this one: All life on Earth is based on carbon, but chemically that’s not the only possibility. This insight could help if, one day, one encounters completely different forms of life somewhere in the universe, such as silicon-based “beings”. Because Nurse is convinced of one thing: we are not alone in space. Jurgen Nakott

Paul Nurse
Structure, 184 p., € 20.00
ISBN 978-3-351-03888-5

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