19 February 2024

The Secret of Life according to Philip Ball.

In this blog I discuss two remarkable statements I encountered in Philip Ball's How Life Works. The first is about Watson and Crick's proposal for the structure of Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and 'the secret of life'. The second is about the ENCODE project. That's enough for today.

Plaque 'DNA The Secret of Life'  [1]

Here is the first quote:

"Some consider the discovery of DNA's double helix to be the most important scientific discovery of the twentieth century. It's not clear how a meaningful ranking of that sort could ever truly be made, but the work certainly launched the genetic age." (chapter 2).

In these two remarkable sentences Ball tries to downplay the importance of the discovery of the structure of DNA. Some consider...? At least the five members of the Nobel Prize committee in Sweden awarded the structure of DNA with the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. It's not clear how a meaningful ranking of that sort could ever truly be made? Do I understand him right? Is he really suggesting that the structure of Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) does not deserve a Nobel Prize? [6]. Ball must be the first scientist suggesting such a thing. If it is impossible to compare and rank the discovery of DNA with other discoveries, why bring it up at all? It is an odd way to suggest that rewarding it with a Nobel Prize is completely arbitrary. The work certainly launched the genetic age? This must be the understatement of the century. A quick search for Nobel prizes concerning DNA results in about 20 prizes! [5]. The most well-known are: the genetic code (1968), restriction enzymes (1978), DNA sequencing (1980), recombinant DNA (1980), mobile genetic elements (1983), PCR (1993), split genes (1993), DNA repair (2015), CRISPR/Cas9 (2020).

Ball is certainly right that there is more to life than DNA (see my previous blog). And probably he has good reasons for de-emphasizing the relative importance of DNA in the biochemistry of the cell and in the development of an organism. That is one thing. However, it is quite another thing to retroactively cast doubt on the importance of the discovery of DNA. The Nobel Prize was awarded for the scientific merit of the discovery of the structure of DNA, not for 'discovering the secret of life' [4]

Now 'the secret of life': 

"A lesser-known fabrication, however, is Watson's claim (which he only recently admitted was pure invention) that when he and Crick finally realized what the structure of DNA molecule must be, Crick regaled the occupants of The Eagle pub in Cambridge, the duo's favorite watering hole, with the claim  that they had discovered 'the secret of life'." (chapter 2).

In the eBook version I could not find any source for 'Watson's recently admission', but I found in Francis Crick (1990) What Mad Pursuit,

"I think we realized almost immediately that we had stumbled onto something important. According to Jim, I went into the Eagle, the pub across the road where we lunched every day, and told everyone that we'd discovered the secret of life. Of that I have no recollection." (chapter 6)
which is good evidence that Watson's story is wrong. But, Crick could have forgotten it. Furthermore, in his book The secret of life Howard Markel (2021) refers to this blog: Happy 100th birthday, Francis Crick (1916-2004) which was written by Matthew Cobb:

"Watson’s own description of the discovery of the structure of DNA did not contain any striking new revelations, with one exception. He finally admitted that when he wrote in The Double Helix that Crick strode into the Eagle pub and proclaimed ‘We have discovered the secret of life’, this was not true. Watson said he made it up, for dramatic effect. Crick always denied saying any such thing." June 8, 2016 [2].

In the past I have written many blogs about the extraordinary and surprising properties of DNA and I could add several more. For now, here are a few remarks about the importance of DNA for evolutionary biologists. Firstly, evolution is the modification of DNA. It is rewriting the code. If genes do not change during evolution how can new species originate? How can species adapt? Secondly, if any modification of metabolism –no  matter how useful it may be– is not encoded in DNA, it is lost forever. Metabolism is necessary for life. The laws of chemistry and physics determine 'how life works', but they don't need to be encoded in DNA. Without a carrier of hereditary information there would be nobody contemplating the secret of life [3]. There would be no human beings at all. Whether you like it or not, life on earth is based on DNA.

My second remark is about a few curious statements about ENCODE:

"Just how much of that noncoding DNA really makes a difference is another matter. It's probably not 80 percent - ENCODE member Bradly Bernstein guesses that 30 percent might be a more realistic figure.' (chapter 3).  

That's only a small difference: 80% or 30%! I leave that up to Larry Moran.

28 Feb: Note 6 about 1962 Nobel prize added.



  1. Secret of Life Plaque at The Eagle Inn (Cambridge): it really exists! 
  2. I still can't trace the exact location of 'Watson's admission'. Ball did not give a source.
  3. So, what Watson and Crick ultimately discovered was the (nearly) universal language of life on earth, the language of DNA, which is evidence for common descent of all life. 
  4. If the discovery of the structure of DNA is not the most important scientific discovery of the twentieth century, then it's no big deal that Rosalind Franklin did not receive the Nobel Prize for her contribution. See also: What Rosalind Franklin truly contributed to the discovery of DNA’s structure. [22 Feb 2024
  5. All Nobel Prizes in Physiology or MedicineAll Nobel Prizes in Chemistry. [24 Feb 2024]  Nobel Prizes concerning DNA (the list depends on how precisely the criteria are defined):
    • 1957 nucleotide co-enzymes
    • 1959 DNA and RNA synthesis, DNA polymerase
    • 1962 Watson-Crick structure of DNA (1953 discovery)
    • 1966 DNA is genetic material (Hershey–Chase, 1952) **)
    • 1968 genetic code
    • 1972 ribonuclease
    • 1978 restriction enzymes
    • 1980 DNA sequencing
    • 1980 recombinant DNA
    • 1983 mobile genetic elements
    • 1989 catalytic RNA
    • 1993 PCR
    • 1993 split genes
    • 1995 genetic control of development *)
    • 2006 transcription
    • 2006 RNA interference- gene silencing by double-stranded RNA
    • 2009 telomeres
    • 2015 DNA repair
    • 2020 CRISPR/Cas9 **)
    • 2022 paleogenomics
    • 2023 mRNA covid-19 vaccins

    *) is mentioned by Ball, chapter 8.  **) is mentioned in chapter 11.
  6. Ball relegates the 1962 Nobel Prize for DNA to a footnote... [28 Feb 2024]
Plaque at The Eagle (Google streetview)

The Eagle, Cambridge (Google streetview)

King's College London
(1) Franklin-Wilkins Building


(2) Franklin and Photo 51

(3) Wilkins. Clearly a helix

(4) The Double Helix


The Francis Crick Institute, London


(pictures Google streetview)


  1. Thanks for this sharp analysis, Gert! But in my eyes not sharp enough. Ball is talking about the discovery of DNA's double helix. He says: Some consider it to be the most important scientific discovery of the twentieth century.
    You stumble at "some". Well, from the view of physics I agree with Ball, since most physicists will consider quantum physics to be by far the most important scientific discovery of the twentieth century. No doubt, without that theory our understanding of many, many physical and chemical (and therefore biological) phenomena would remain enigmatic. So when I say ‘not sharp enough’ I mean: you are looking to Ball’s book through biological glasses ­čśŐ
    And yes I agree with you that Balls interpretation of the roll of DNA is over the top. Without DNA-memory life as we know it would be impossible. Many (if not: non) of the biophysical processes he describes in his book would not work at all without genetic memory.
    But, as far as I understand him, he is not denying the importance of DNA and genes but questioning the gene-centered view of life.
    Looking forward to your comments on his ideas about embryological and morphological processes.

  2. Small correction:
    Many (if not: NON of the biophysical processes he describes in his book would not work at all without genetic memory.
    should be:
    Many (if not: ALL) of the biophysical processes he describes in his book would not work at all without genetic memory.

  3. Rolie, you are right. He did not write .... the most important scientific discovery of the twentieth century in the life sciences. He should have made it clear that he was comparing ALL scientific discoveries of that century. Furthermore, he certainly should have added his thoughts on the importance of the discovery of the structure of DNA. Now it is in the dark. Add to this that he is downplaying the importance of DNA and genes all the time in his book, not just chapter 2.
    I just assumed he was talking about the life sciences because the remark is in Chapter 2 'Genes. What DNA really does.' and in a book about HOW LIFE WORKS.
    Well, if you can't compare discoveries in the life sciences (DNA) with those in the physical sciences (quantum physics), DON'T DO IT! :-)

  4. You left some Nobel laureates off your list.

    1910--Albrecht Kossel for discovering the nitrogenous bases that make up DNA
    1933--Thomas H. Morgan for describing the first physical map of genes within a genome (the fruitfly genome).
    1958--George Wells Beadle, Edward Lawrie Tatum, and Joshua Lederberg discovery that DNA is responsible for proteins
    1969--Max Delbr├╝ck, Alfred D. Hershey and Salvador E. Luria for their work in viruses. Although awarded after the discovery of the structure of DNA, the award was given to Luria and Delbruck for their work in the 1940's demonstrating spontaneous mutations.

    Let's also not forget those who weren't awarded a Nobel for their work in genetics prior to Watson and Crick's discovery of the structure of DNA.

    Avery discovers that DNA is the molecule of heredity.
    Chargaff discovers that the ratios of A to T and G to C are equal, something that was instrumental in Watson and Crick's work.
    Let's not forget Mendel.
    Let's not forget the massive amount of work geneticists like Wright, Haldane, and Fisher contributed to the Modern Synthesis which still forms the foundation of how genes are modeled to this day, all of which was done before the discovery of the structure of DNA.

  5. Eric, thanks for your additional 4 Nobel Prizes (including 2 before 1953) plus other important contributors. That makes in total 22 Nobel Prizes for DNA!!! And that excludes Nobel Prizes indirectly related to DNA. An impressive result. Genetics is a field that isn't easily dismissed.


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