Review: iBiology

5 stars
Free high quality biology lectures from leading scientists, including Nobel laureates -- what's not to love?

In my view, there’s no subject as challenging and as fascinating as the study of life. None. The machinery of life operates down to the subatomic level (consider proton pumps, or the use of quantum walks in phtosynthesis), at a level still beyond our own technological abilities. In the form of viruses and bacteria, it can kill millions and evolve so rapidly that it eludes our best efforts to defeat it. It’s produced the complexity of the brains that are trying to understand it – and machines as beautiful as this, a bacteriophage that infects bacteria:

bacteriophage by Adenosine, CC-BY-SA

But my favorite part of learning about biology in the year 2016 is how much we already know. Since the discovery of DNA, the development of electron microscopes, the use of computers to study huge datasets and to run artificial simulations of evolution, and countless other breakthroughs, we have a remarkably coherent picture of why life is the way it is. We live in an era where we study ants to optimize the behavior of algorithms! How amazing is that?

The study of life, then, is a little bit like walking into an alien spaceship but discovering that some of the smartest brains on the planet have already tried to figure out everything from the warp drive to the controls. How much there is to learn! But it’s hard to find the best books, videos, websites, and so on.

If you use only one, make it iBiology. It’s a grant-funded project, and the gist is a huge library of video lectures done by leading biologists. And I mean leading – you’ll find Nobel Prize laureates like Jack Szostak explaining what we know about the origin of life on Earth, or CRISPR co-discoverer Jennifer Doudna talking about genome engineering.

The iBiology format is very engaging; the speaker is talking in front of slides/videos that take up the whole background and are composited in, i.e., no shadows or image quality issues (think weather forecast). These are long lectures, ranging from introductions anyone with a basic understanding of high school level biology can follow to very complex stuff. It pays to explore, listen in on a few different ones, and also make notes of topics to dig into further using additional resources like Wikipedia.

There’s no catch – the videos are under a Creative Commons license (though one of the more restrictive ones). I hope they’ll keep getting funded, but the library they’ve already produced is an incredible treasure and I highly recommend checking it out, even if biology isn’t something you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about so far. :-)