Sean B. Carroll: A Series of Fortunate Events

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Sean B. Carroll: A Series of Fortunate Events

good evening my name is candace and i’m an event manager on behalf of town hall seattle it’s my pleasure to welcome you to tonight’s live stream presentation with scientist sean b carroll as we get underway i would like to acknowledge that our institution stands on the unseated traditional territory of the coast salish people particularly the duwamish we thank them for our continued use of the natural resources of their ancestral homeland thank you all for tuning in town hall is proud to be a community focused organization a place where we can share and sustain ideas and creativity even if we can’t gather in person i’d like to thank sean for appearing tonight to help make that possible town hall will continue to produce virtual content this fall including our podcast in the moment which features exclusive guests and many of our past talks are available in video or podcast form in our digital media library hall in the nonprofit community at large have been put under significant strain due to the ever-changing landscape we hope you will consider extending your generosity tonight to help us help support us during this difficult time by making a donation or becoming a member you can click on the donate button at the bottom of the screen at any time our partner booksellers have also been hit by the negative effects of covid we encourage you to support local independent bookstores by purchasing a copy of the book being presented tonight use the link on this live stream page to purchase through elliott bay books for viewers who want to watch this broadcast with closed captioning we recommend viewing the stream via our youtube page that is linked here in the chat to enable real-time closed captioning click the cc button in the bottom right corner of the video player the video will be available for re-watching immediately following tonight’s broadcast today’s presentation will be about 35 minutes long followed by a q a sean will select questions from those submitted in the ask a question field at the bottom center of your screen and if you’re watching on youtube you can submit a question in the chat and we’ll bring it over to crowdcast we can’t guarantee that we’ll be able to address every question but we will get to as many as possible please keep your questions concise and in the form of a question town hall’s work is made possible through your support and the support of our sponsors our arno mitulski science series is supported by microsoft kuow winco foundation northwest and the taxpayers of washington finally town hall is a member supported organization so i’d like to thank all of our members watching tonight now on to our program sean b carroll is an award-winning scientist writer educator and film producer he leads the department of science education at the howard hughes medical institute and is the baylor simon chair of biology at the university of maryland he is a prominent science communicator and his laboratory research has centered on the genes that control animal body patterns and play major roles in the evolution of animal diversity he has served as executive producer or executive in charge of several future documentary films or series including oliver sacks his own life and the rise of mammals he’s the author of numerous books his first endless forms most beautiful was published in 2005 and discussed the new science of evolutionary developmental biology he followed that up in 2006 with the making of the fittest and remarkable creatures epic adventures in the search for the origin of species in 2009 that was a finalist from the national book award for nonfiction most recently before the book he’s sharing tonight he published the serengeti rules the quest to discover how life works and why it matters which tells the stories of pioneering scientists who saw answers to simple yet profoundly important questions carol’s book a series of fortunate events chance and the making of the planet life and you is the subject of tonight’s talk please join me in welcoming sean b carroll hi i’m author and biologist sean carroll thanks for tuning in i wish we could be together in person but covet has prevented that today i’ll share with you a few stories from my new book it asks the questions why is the planet the way it is how did we get here does everything happen for a reason or are some things left to chance philosophers and theologians have been pondering those questions for millennia and modern philosophers still do but nothing puts those beliefs to the tests like trauma or a close call in 2001 seth macfarlane was the 27 year old creator and executive producer

of the not yet hit family guy having made a splash at such a young age he was asked to speak at his alma mater in rhode island and he tells the rest of the story to piers morgan a combination of two things i was uh i was giving a lecture at my college the night before and went out with some of the faculty afterwards and had had a few pints and uh he got drunk yes and uh and coupled with the fact that my my travel agent had listed the uh the flight on my itinerary is leaving ten minutes later than it did and and i was you know i was i was generally late for flights you know i’d missed a lot of flights prior to that so it wasn’t it wasn’t like it was anything crazily out of the ordinary but i i got to the uh counter and i said yeah i’m booked on flight 11 and and uh the one behind the counter said you know i’m sorry you’re too late they just closed the gate and i said all right well you know i’ll take the 11 o’clock went into the lounge uh fell asleep woke up about 45 minutes later to a commotion and the first planet hit and sat there and watched the second plane hit and they announced what flight it was and i turned the guy next to me and and uh and said my god that was the flight i was supposed to be on i i was late i missed it mcfarlane was not the only celebrity to miss flight 11. mark wahlberg was also scheduled to be on the flight but changed his plans and 11 years later mcfarland and wahlberg teamed up to make the movie ted now what are the odds these two guys would both miss american flight 11 and later make a hit movie were there escapes from mass murder just dumb luck or were their lives spared so that our lives would be enriched by a trash-talking teddy bear ultra tuscan orange grapefruit my god america is imploding dumb luck accident chance call it what you will mcfarland’s late arrival to the airport was purely an accident albeit an accident with profound personal consequences what a difference just 30 minutes can make it’s sobering to think what a thin line there is between life and death and what governs that thin line is a major focus of my new book because over the past 50 years as scientists have learned so much more about the history and workings of the planet we’ve been startled to discover how the course of life has been buffeted by a variety of cosmological and geological accidents without which we would not be here and as we probe human biology and the factors that impact our individual lives we’ve caught chance red-handed reigning over that line between life and death today i’m going to highlight a few of those events that reveal just how much we live in a chance driven world and then briefly explore what that means for how we think about ourselves so speaking of thin lines that’s exactly what puzzled the geologist working outside the beautiful town of gubio italy in the 1970s geologist walter alvarez saw an interesting pattern in a column of rock just outside of town he noticed that in this large stack of limestone layers there was a switch in color from white at the bottom to red above and when alvarez looked closer he saw that there was a peculiar layer of grayish clay shown here where the coin is on the right that separated the two colors of limestone alvarez’s decryption of that one centimeter thin line began to reveal the story of the most important day on earth in the last 100 million years a day that was very very unlucky for most everything alive but would eventually turn out to be extremely fortunate for us and on that day a long long time ago thirty minutes would make all the difference the gubio rock formation was once part of an ancient sea bed so it contained the fossilized shells of tiny creatures called foraminifera or four amps for short shown here in the electron microscope these abundant single-celled creatures are part of the ocean’s plankton community and food web and when forearms die their shells settle in ocean sediments and form parts of limestones which can be later pushed up by tectonic forces as they are in italy when alvarez looked at the four m’s from the rock cut outside gubeo he saw the white layer of rocks on the bottom contained a diverse array of large fossil forams but the reddish layer of rock above

lacked those species and contained only a few smaller species of forams and that thin layer of clay in between appeared to lack fossils all together alvarez realized something dramatic had happened in the ocean that had driven many foreign species extinct in a short period of time now that boundary represented by the clay line that’s also known from terrestrial deposits like this one from the western united states the pocket knife is pointing to that boundary which marks a dividing line between two worlds 66 million years ago below the boundary lay the rocks of the cretaceous period which make up the last third of the age of reptiles when dinosaurs ruled the land above the boundary lay the paleogene which contains no dinosaurs but marks the beginning of the age of mammals in which furry animals emerge to become the largest animals on land and in the seas alvarez and his colleagues wondered what on earth could have caused the disappearance of widespread tiny organisms like forearms as well as much larger creatures like dinosaurs as you most likely heard it was traces of the element iridium in that thin layer of clay that tipped them off that it wasn’t something on earth but something from space an asteroid six miles wide and traveling approximately fifty thousand miles per hour slammed into the yucatan peninsula the enormous mass of rock blasted out of the crater was hurled in all directions a thick curtain of ejected traveled at several thousand miles per hour and rain down across north america while the impact plume consisting of superheated air carbon dioxide water and sulfur vapor vaporized rock chunks of target rock that shot ejecta at velocities greater than the earth’s escape velocity more than 25 000 miles per hour into and beyond the atmosphere which then fell back down across the globe as trillions of red-hot meteors the result was hell on earth the following ejected heated the air to four to six hundred degrees fahrenheit like a baking oven and triggered global wildfires the impact plume and soot from the wildfires blocked out the sun global temperatures then dropped by at least 20 degrees fahrenheit probably more food chains collapsed and this blackout lasted for at least 10 perhaps as many as 30 years during that time and afterwards three-quarters of all plant and animal species on earth including the great dinosaurs went extinct but this asteroid impact is the mother of all accidents and that’s because we’ve come to appreciate that there are pretty special circumstances for this mass extinction to happen the destructive power of the plume depends upon the mineral content of the impact site and geologists have figured that only one to thirteen percent of the earth’s surface contains the right kinds of rocks to trigger a mass extinction if vaporized so what that means is with the earth rotating at a thousand miles per hour had this asteroid which had been circling the solar system for perhaps 4 billion years had it entered the earth’s atmosphere just 30 minutes earlier it would have landed in the atlantic 30 minutes later it would have landed in the pacific and in either case there would be no mass extinction the dinosaurs would still be here and we would not and of course there would be no ted and god forbid no ted 2 now let me show you another collision this one’s a little more personal in this clip the collision at the upper right also triggers a shower of chemicals but this time life does not end it begins because this is the moment of fertilization the trembling and shower are part of the sequence of dramatic physical and chemical changes that occur in the egg that prevent fertilization by other sperm and begin the process of embryonic development i have a swarm of 100 million or more contenders only a single lucky sperm will swim all the way up the fallopian tube and successfully fertilize the egg fertilized egg is the union of two genomes half of its chromosomes from the sperm and half from the unfertilized egg

here’s an astounding fact no two fertilized human eggs will ever be the same right never be the same to see why let’s try a pop quiz you ready so age contributing 23 chromosomes how many genetically unique children do you think your parents could have 23 46 maybe 92 now try again how about 70 trillion that’s right 70 trillion and what that means is that each of us each one of us is a one in 70 trillion event is it fertilization well it’s the accident of all mothers to see why let’s break down the math the number of possible chromosome combinations from dad can easily be calculated because you can give two different versions of each chromosome and there are 23 chromosomes and so there are 2 to the 23rd power or 8 million 388 608 possible chromosome combinations from dad same math for mom 23 chromosomes 2 alternatives for each chromosome 8 million plus possibilities but the number of possible combinations of sperm and egg the number of possible combinations would each create a different child is the product of those two numbers which gives you 70 trillion 368 billion 744 million 177 664 unique children after my arrival at ten pounds five ounces my mom stopped at four but this enormous number is actually an underestimate because of another important contributor mistakes i’m talking about the copying of dna three billion letters in each sperm three billion letters in each egg heck it’s so easy to make mistakes with much shorter lines of text let me show you a couple of my favorite examples so i’m a passionate baseball fan started when i was a kid in the early days i read the sports pages every day and when i saw this story in 1974 i clipped it out and kept it forever there are three mistakes in this very short sports article see if you can spot them all all right you ready there’s the first one there’s the second one and yep there’s the third one that must have been quite a wallop i don’t think these were intentional these are random mistakes typos here’s another howler from a slightly higher authority than the toledo times this is the 1631 version of the king james bible and i’m drawing your attention to the seventh commandment i’m pretty sure this is the copy of the bible that’s in the white house bedroom the blasphemy was not detected for a year and king charles the first was well he was royally pissed he ordered that all copies be burned he revoked the printer’s license one of whom died in debtor’s prison what a difference a single letter or word can make the same is absolutely true in life’s alphabet let me show you what a difference one typo can make i’m going to show you a piece of very short piece of genetic text the original line reads this the singer letter code and just one typo changing that middle m to r has killed more than 33 million people now how could such a small change be so deadly i’ll tell you that in a few minutes the crux of the matter is the cause of that change and that leads us to the dna molecule now this is the structure on the left that was worked out first by watson and crick in 1953 and the key breakthrough was the discovery of the rules for the pairing of the bases that hold the double helix together g with c a with t they’re located on the opposite strands of the double helix now a footnote to that discovery is actually a central importance to my discussion today so fair warning i’m going to talk a little chemistry because the details are so revelatory don’t worry you’re going to get the gist of it it turns out that the bases occur in two alternative chemical forms they differ by the position of one

hydrogen okay so in the top form you can see that the oxygen up there in red does not have a hydrogen bound to it but in the bottom form it does similarly you’ll see a hydrogen up above on that nitrogen that’s lacking down here this is called the keto form in the enol form of these bases at first watson only knew about this less common form the enol form and that stumped him but he learned from a colleague that the keto form is actually the more common form and history was made the important detail however is that these two different forms they bond with different bases now only very recently has been possible to capture and measure the transition between the two forms in dna and that reveals something very important the enol form is fleeting it’s flickering back and forth enol keto enol keto but the enol form lasts only about 1 1000 of a second before flipping back to the keto form you might say well so what well the so what is if that happens where the dna is being copied and the copying machinery is passing by moving at about 1 000 bases per second if it just happens by chance to pass when the enol form is present well the wrong base gets inserted and that creates a mutation so that flickering is random and it’s just a matter of chance of whether that dna is being copied at that moment so this is the process of random mutation it’s fundamentally what’s happening what does it tell us it tells us the event at the root of mutation is an inescapable fundamental matter of physics this quantum transition between chemical states a little chance shape shift at the atomic level and that tells us that mutation is a feature not a bug in dna in every organism and every cell whenever dna is copied changes will occur because of the intrinsic characteristics of the very bases that endow dna with its properties change evolution it’s unavoidable inevitable now of course because every species dna is different because of this process every individual dna is different it’s changed in this way this tells us that chance is the source of all innovation all beauty all diversity in a living world it’s pretty hard to imagine isn’t it how can chance generate everything we see in the living world well that’s a long story but let me just show you one example one example of how chance invents and speaking of beauty get a load of this guy okay the most important thing about the antarctic eel pout is not how it looks but where it lives it lives in waters that are very cold about minus 1.8 degrees celsius below the freezing point of fresh water lives in the antarctic ocean and the main enemy of fish in these waters is not so much the cold but ice the water contains small ice crystals that if they get into the fish through its gills or or get swallowed that will nucleate the formation of larger ice crystals and bam their fish sticks it would freeze the animals were it not for a key invention and that invention is antifreeze eelpout blood does not freeze until it reaches about minus 2.1 degrees celsius colder than the ocean the reason being that it’s chock full of proteins that work as antifreezes the antifreeze binds to small ice crystals and prevents them from growing larger and it lowers the temperature at which those ice crystals can then grow now the really neat part of this story is that we can track the origin of the genetic code for antifreeze how it evolved from an entirely different gene which gives us a forensic trail of how this invention arose and it shows how chance mutation is an inventor now a key clue came when it was noticed that the antifreeze protein borne uncanny resemblance to a section of another protein found in other fish in fact in all sorts of other animals the protein is an enzyme called sas that’s involved in the making of a specific sugar we’re not going to get into that those details the antifreeze sequence

is very similar to a short sequence at the end of sas over there at the tail end now the reason for this strong resemblance was deciphered by some expert sleuthing through the dna of eel pouts and other fish and that detective work revealed that the antifreeze gene evolves from a chunk of the sas gene a mutation deleted really sort of the core of the sas gene leaving behind the part that had some ice binding activity remaining chunk encoded a protein that on its own could bind to ice crystals and that was the genesis of the first antifreeze gene the eelpout’s ancestors then ran or rather swam with this invention and made many copies of the antifreeze gene expanding it to more than 30 copies which enables the fish to make a lot of antifreeze so if you look along the genome along the chromosome of the eel pout you see these other genes just like other fish have and then this boom this battery of antifreeze genes telltale sign this is a peculiar adaptation to where it lives the ill pound has over 30 copies of this gene all tandemly arrayed and that tandem arrangement tells us there was another mutational mechanism at work that we know quite well that duplicates individual or blocks of genes now i could show many more examples of the creativity of mutations i’ll spare you and let this one make the point that mutation thus chance is the inventor and what this means is as you look around the world is that we live in a world of mistakes governed by chance genetic accidents occur at random they change genes without regard to the potential consequences now the eventual fate of those mutations well that depends on external circumstances in a sieving process we call natural selection fair to ask then what determines those external circumstances so let’s look at the eelpout example the most relevant thing about the eel pout is the coldness of the antarctic ocean so we ask how and why did the antarctic ocean become so cold the answer involves tectonics you may know that the earth’s oceans and continents are on tectonic plates that move around the globe very slowly and have moved over time and with respect to the antarctic a couple plates are most relevant to becoming cold and that involves the former joining of the south american and antarctic continents that existed or joined at least 65 million years ago and the position of the indian subcontinent which 65 million years ago was below the equator whereas today it’s now up in asia it was that collision of the indian subcontinent that triggered global cooling and glaciation of the antarctic and the separation of antarctic from south america isolated the southern ocean and led to cooler currents circulating the continent okay so i’m talking about tectonics but then you might ask and why did these plates move in the way they did well the movement of these plates has to do with their size their shape and their speed is determined very much by their thickness so why do these plates move the way they did well there were parts of a super continent gondwanaland 140 million years ago that broke up and from what we can tell it broke up much like a kitchen plate breaks when it hits the floor it broke into random pieces some of those pieces were larger some were smaller smaller pieces like the indian subcontinent moved more quickly and slammed into other continents what’s that tell us the size shape and speed of these plates is a matter of chance so what does that tell us is that chance invents this internal mechanism based on dna is the inventor and the fate of that invention depends upon external circumstances shaped by chance we’re a long long way from providence and i don’t mean the capital of rhode island it is astonishing that blind chance is the source of all novelty diversity and beauty in the living world i hope that you are awestruck at what an asteroid sliding tectonic plates and a flickering polymer of just four bases have wrought but our chance driven existence also poses the unsettling

quandary that we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds just our world and this view of course shatters traditional beliefs about cause and effect in our world those beliefs are represented for example by this booking quote from theologian r.c spruell who categorically rejects the existence of chance in his book not a chance the myth of chance in modern science and cosmology sproul says it’s not necessary for a chance to rule in order to supplant god indeed chance requires little authority at all if it is to depose god all it needs to do the job is to exist the mere existence of chance is enough to rip god from his cosmic throne chance does not need to rule does not need to be sovereign if it exists as a mere impotent humble servant it leaves god not only out of date but out of a job all right so according to sprul chance puts god out of a job or at least many of the jobs we’ve traditionally assigned to him or her god is not in the conception business choosing the winning sperm and egg nor the genetic engineering business designing creatures dna and traits nor the weather making business nor the cancer business nor as it turns out the pandemic business remember that piece of code i showed you before about how much difference one typo can make well now i’ll reveal to you that the original text those nine letters i’m showing you the small part of a virus called the simian immunodeficiency virus that infects for example chimpanzees that the altered text with that one typo is the corresponding part of the human immunodeficiency virus the hiv virus now what we know about that change is that that mutation leading from m to r enables chimpanzee virus to infect humans and that has occurred by accident at least three separate times and triggered the aids pandemic what a difference one typo can make so if not theologians you know who do we turn to to think about chance and its implications i choose novelist kurt vonnegut now vonnegut wrote a lot about our accident driven world and our struggle for meaning in many of his works and i want to share with you one particular story that comes from his semi-autobiographical novel slapstick he explains that his sister alice was dying of cancer at the age of 41 and he and his brother went to visit her on what turned out to be the last day of her life and he wrote hers would have been an unremarkable death statistically if it were not for one detail which is this her healthy husband james carmold adams the editor of a trade journal for purchasing agents which he put together in a cubicle on wall street had died two mornings before on the broker special the only train in american railroading history to hurl itself off an open draw bridge think of that this really happened now the great humorist concocted many fantastic scenarios in his books but this really did happen just as he said the train plunged off an open draw bridge killing 48 people including vonnegut’s brother-in-law now he and his brother decided they would keep this information from their sister alice because she was of course concerned about the future for her children they had four children together but another patient told alice about the accident she read the newspaper and saw her husband among the list of victims in her response to that vonnegut writes since alice had never received any religious instruction and since she had led a blameless life she never thought of her awful luck as being anything but accidents in a very busy place good for her accidents in a very busy place indeed we now know that we are all here both collectively and individually through a series of accidents cosmological geological and biological accidents vonnegut’s books helped me to realize that next to scientists the one group of people that seem least inclined to think everything happens for a reason rather that blind chance governs the world are humorous and comedians so many great present-day comedians seth macfarlane eric idle bill maher ricky gervais sarah silverman and many more in late greats from mark twain

to vonnegut to george carlin have rejected traditional beliefs about cause in the world so many very funny people in fact that it made me wonder why is this so what do scientists and comedians have in common why are comedians drawn towards such subjects i reached out to several some of whom kindly took the time to reply and i’ll leave that conversation for those who want to read the book but i’m going to close today with a couple of gems from two comedians the first comes from ricky gervais who told 60 minutes the following it always comes back to us why are we here well we just happened to be here we couldn’t choose it we’re not special we’re just lucky and this is a holiday we didn’t exist for 14 and a half billion years then we got 80 or 90 years if we’re lucky and then we’ll never exist again we should make the most of it now of course when bad things happen we all struggle how can we cope i think eric idol has the best answer when you do find yourself in in a kind of a you know a dark place like that something going wrong i mean how do you deal with with difficult stuff like that eric well you know philosophies really helps i mean you know some some things in life are bad they can really make you mad other things just make you swear and curse when you’re chewing on life’s gristle [Applause] always look on the bright side always look up the bright side of life always life is quite absurd and that’s the final word you must always face the curtains with about forget about your give the audience a grin enjoy always very good always up the drive side of life what are you going to lose [Applause] thank you for listening hey there seattle

well that was great what a uh what a fun thing to end on uh kind of exploring the um delicate line between tragedy and comedy as monty python does better than almost anybody yeah yeah um you know i want to remind people to um submit their questions and ask a question field at the bottom of your screen um if you’re watching on youtube you can also submit a question there and we’ll bring it we’ll bring it over here um so something that was occurring to me through your talk sean was that you know both scenarios of either you know rc sperle’s uh idea um that that there was a um intelligent creator um versus chance um kind of both of those scenarios take our capacity to control anything kind of out of the equation right um and i was thinking about uh you know one of the things that we have actually created but now can’t seem to get a control of is climate change and and how it’s going to um sort of demand some evolving and adapting um is that um you know how does that factor into uh your talk and how does uh you know is it moving too quickly for uh for these chants these chance uh evolutions that’s a great question well we’re a weird species right so we’ve come along and really in the last 10 000 years you know of all this capacity to you know to change the world to change life for everything else that’s on the planet so um if you know with respect to other species they’re looking at they’re looking at us as the asteroid right this two-legged thing came along and oh my gosh you know conditions are not quite as nice as they were a while ago so now the question is whether we can control ourselves right whether we are you know part of his intelligence part of it is you know will to change our ways and you know we haven’t known much science for very long i i’ll give us a little bit of a break for a while i mean the alarm bells i mean some concern was starting to be expressed in late 50s and mid 60s that all this burning of fossil fuels could have a long-term problem but you know we have been in denial and kind of burying heads in sand and not wanting to take tough measures you know for probably at least 20 years so that’s the question you know life is going to change the question is at what rate and under whose guidance right so are we going to take action to make the world a bit more habitable and to slow thing slow change down or are we going to let things go quickly and you ask the question are things happening quickly and the answer is absolutely that if you look at the paleoclimate record and this is not i talk about the paleoclimate record in the book for other reasons but it sort of the whole significance of this from climate change is a different book but if you look at the paleoclimate record it’s so underscored that that even though earth has been in a volatile cycle for last two million years and it’s really important the ice ages it hasn’t hit the co2 levels like this for perhaps five million years and we hit it really quickly in a very in a very short period of time so if you look at the pace of change we now can calibrate that to the natural cycles that earth has had and we’re on a really really fast change and of course that’s uh that’s going to disrupt nature and it’s going to disrupt how we live so the question is whether this big brain creature this sort of um freak that has learned to adapt to the ice age and create its own habitat is going to buffer all the change that it’s brought into the world so stay tuned you’re going to probably know sooner than i will i’ll i’ll probably be at the end of eric idol’s song by the time you know that answer uh well we’ve got a couple of questions coming in um let’s see this first one’s from alan caswell it says great talk could you explain why india moving up toward asia caused the antarctic to cool yeah so this is a really something i didn’t know much about as a biologist the geologists have have unpacked this over the last about 25 years or so um some have described it as the collision that changed the world so here’s the deal so co2 levels post asteroid were pretty high in the atmosphere and earth was pretty warm from pole to pole really pretty much a subtropical environment ice free at the poles and but over the subsequent 20 or 30

million years there was a gradual cooldown but what pulls co2 out of the atmosphere well there’s various ways it can be buried um as organic material so for example those forams bury co2 in their shells and it can be buried as limestone and things like this but the weathering phenomena interaction of co2 with rainwater and rock can lead to the burial of co2 in the ocean so pulse net pull co2 out and so you ask well what created more rock in the world and what created more rock in the world was the collision of the indian subcontinent with the asian content that built the himalaya and the building of that mountain range catalyzed a cool down of the earth which led to the glaciation of the antarctic and then there were subsequent changes that led to even you know greater cooling in the oscillations that are the ice ages where the ice sheets advance and retreat on the in the northern hemisphere so that indian subcontinent moving um at about maybe 15 centimeters a year something like this um nonetheless moving a lot faster than other continents slammed into asia and changed the world that’s amazing um it’s so interesting to think about like a little chess piece that kind of ran you know ran away from all the other bigger chess pieces and and yet had a really had a really big impact yeah sort of marvelous and i think the what paleoclimatologists have been able to reveal you know figure out you know earth’s climate over the last you know 70 million years and in detail earth climate over the last few million years it’s pretty amazing i mean you know we our world is so stable you know our sense of of um sameness you know century in and century out is there but you look a little bit longer time horizons and it’s pretty amazing the last two million years have been really volatile through the ice ages yeah i think we out here in washington are pretty familiar with mountains interacting with our with our climate um it’s so interesting to think of uh the himalayas being created in just a completely different way than mountains out here you know uh yeah um yeah so uh this next question is from amy and i might pronounce these things wrong but um does the genol tautomer tautomer uh create mutations during dna replication and or gene expression well that’s a great question and you see in there some point hello from four scientists so great great institution and thanks for the scientists to throw me a nice fastball so definitely during dna replication i mean the tautomer the tautomer can be can be there at any time in other words there’s there’s a there’s that flickering going on but during dna replication when the helix is opened um this is obviously when the replication machinery is going by and that’s where the mutation is going to happen you’re going to get a misincorporation of base sorry this is going to sound a little funny but let’s just say you’re going to get the wrong base at that position because the bonds it’s going to form are going to be different in the enol form than it is from the keto form now the question is does this also happen during gene expression when messenger rna is being made and i would think it does but i would think because those changes are not inherited by the next generation that that’s going to be a relatively minor contributor but that’s such a great question i mean that’s a thesis quality question so i’m going to give you i’m going to give you some points for stump the stump the speaker that i got to think a little bit more about the the impact on gene expression but that should not be inherited by the next generation um and so perhaps that’s tolerated it may also be that the mistakes like that are that that there’s a way to for example just destroy that messenger rna if there’s a mistake um shall i move on i know everybody and it’s a friday night i guess everybody’s working hard in the lab so there you go how do you apply this idea of chance to current circumstances around climate change race in the u.s trump chance well you know i’m really focusing on sort of chance in nature and not the things that sort of we exert our control over you know by our behavior um so you know for millennia we’ve wondered how do we get here why is the planet the way it is and it’s you know on one hand it kind of seems sort of trivial to say well chance you know kind of got us here but i think the power comes from the specificity of those things that g um this asteroid had it not happened we wouldn’t be having this conversation um had india not slammed into the antarctic we wouldn’t have had probably

the ice ages if we didn’t have the ice ages you probably wouldn’t have this big brain primate running around you know making technology so we can talk from three mile 3000 miles away and of course as individuals a whole lot of things had to happen to make you you and me me so i’m really focusing on nature i think the rest of this about chance you can think about i mean historians and by historians and scientists both use this term contingency meaning that these outcomes that are contingent of some on some prior event so you could look back and say well some of the things we have going on now socially that you’re referring to um you know they could have gone a different direction so i’ll give you one and you know we don’t want to get too partisan on a friday night you can get that on any channel you want but go back to the 2000 election you had al gore who was determined to do something about climate change very determined um you know by the fluke of a few hundred votes in florida did not become president and you can just think of all the domino effects since then how different would the last 20 years of american history be you know were it not for just the tilt um of that election with respect to climate change would expect respect perhaps to race relations even and of course with respect to the current occupant of the white house and the sort of denialism around climate change so i’d go back 20 years not necessarily four go back 20 and say um how close a call it was that things would go so so kelly asks a question is there is there a life force in the universe driving creativity experimentation as random mistakes so i think this is this is a question that i think certainly people of faith have pondered for a long time in other words just what if people have lots and lots you know there must be thousands of different ideas of what this force might be in the universe and what what god is and where that action could be and you know it’s sort of outside the realm of science science is trying to explain things that are observably you know observable empirical testable measurable you know ideas that it can really you know put to the test and as we put the ideas to the test we find out that these accidents happen and that mutation happens you know all the time and you know we can now only only in the last few years we can take the dna of mom and dad and any child and compare it and say oh here’s the 25 or 30 mutations that child picked up that you know aren’t present in either parent but we have a completely physical chemical explanation for how those things arise and they’re we don’t know where those mutations are going to be in the dna they’re scattered throughout they’re randomly distributed so the patterns we see we see a lot of randomness we see a lot of just blind chants and of course for thousands of years that’s not the way humans have thought humans have thought there’s something out there that is not just governing events on the planet but of course a big idea is governing things in our affairs you know and i think i kind of said it as straight as i could that a lot of things we’ve attributed to being not by chance you know conception um weather you know disasters etc we i understand that these are these are natural forces we don’t need a supernatural explanation for them but i think this question will go on for eternity of well where did the universe come from and where do the laws of the universe come from and you know is there any direction to that so no i don’t think science has detected anything like that but i think a lot of things like that are are um um you know i think they’re they’re for us to ponder and uh and there’s a lot there’s kind of lots of different answers there it’s it’s shrunk the realm that i think you know i think starting 150 or 60 years ago with darwin that the realm of things that we thought might be under a creator’s control have have has kind of shrunk let’s you know i’ll acknowledge that but um what you’re asking no one knows um that that leads really really well into the into the next question i just brought over from uh from bips on youtube yeah well that’s a great yeah it’s a great question and and look here’s a fact you know and let’s just talk about the usa you know for tens of millions of americans they embrace idea they embrace both faith and science and so there’s all sorts of ways that this that people reconcile these two spheres of thought um so the answer is plenty of people find out there is science and there is theology i gave you a sprul i would say if i’m not very accommodating theology that said no nothing could be left a chance and and the threat of chance is that that takes away

you know all sort of divinity in in his mind just one view i could i could have put up probably for example a catholic theologian with a really totally different take so we know that different theologies different denominations have found different ways to reconcile um faith and scientific views and and i really i personally i really much encourage that i think that um you know we’re we’re such a diverse society that we we we need science but i you know we all know that religion has played a big part in people’s lives for for a very long time and uh there’s lots of very very interesting people and interesting endeavors going on around the country um right on the button of your question which is frameworks to sort of accommodate both i’ll turn you to um there’s a really interesting group if you just want to look it up online um the the search words would be clergy letter project and that’s really an organization that is um you know trying to um promote um you know a healthy dialogue between science and clergy and i can tell you that as a science educator that um some of the most important allies we have as scientists are members of the clergy when for example there’s efforts to ban the teaching of certain things and all that so um these these are important alliances even if our world views might be different in various varying degrees but these are really important alliances yeah definitely um we’ve got a couple more and i think we can take i think we have time for these last two if you want to take them um first one from sarah um how has science historically struggled to embrace chance yes god that’s a great question well i think you know if you see that you know first of all our ideas of laws you know first probably coming from physics and or or maybe even from math just the regularity of math that we didn’t necessarily have a mathematics of chance and you know things look fairly we’ll call them deterministic right that things were pretty fixed and orderly by laws but you know then physics in the 20th century started to blow our minds that basically you know the position of subatomic particles was a matter of chance was a matter of just probabilities and we know that radioactive decay is probability and we know that um you know all sorts of things are not a matter of a sort of a fixed pattern but a matter of probability so i think that probably first in physics um and then you know biology is just it’s dealing with lots of phenomena that are that are that where random chance plays a big role so i think there’s fair to say there’s a struggle and i think part of the struggle it’s it’s there’s a scientific community which is a great question there’s also just the human brain you know we love we have a really love-hate relationship with chance right so we go to casinos and we’re looking we’re excited you know we hit blackjack or whatever we we love winning and of course we chalk up winning to our skills or our good character or whatever it might be even in games of pure chance um and then things when we have bad luck you know what are we gonna ascribe that to and we struggle and i i mean of course we all struggle with with bad luck so and then in patterns in nature because i think our brains have been you know evolved for many many many thousands of years to pick patterns out of nature right you know when does that tree you know fruit um you know what’s you know what does this temperature mean in terms of what’s happening in the seasons etc etc we look for patterns in nature so when we see for example you know six rolls of snake eyes at a roulette table i’m at a craps table you know we’re thinking there’s no way the next role could be could be steak guys but the chance of that role being snake eyes is the same as the chance of the previous role being state guys right so we we think that even an event that’s purely random must be different from whatever happened prior as opposed to saying no the vex next event at random parents do this all the time right they had you know three children of you know one gender and they’re like well you know the next one’s got to be a different gender well no it’s the same odds it was before so um so we kind of you know we we struggle with some of these things because we like patterns and i think that’s that’s also sort of built into some of science’s early early struggles with chance and we just keep discovering um you know pretty awesome phenomena that um you know have huge impact but but are wired by chance yeah driven by chance i should say not wired there’s no wires yeah um so i i mistakenly said that this was a question but i wonder if you still might want to comment on this comment um in a parallel universe

fundamental laws may be very different they’re fundamental here because they’re fundamental here but perhaps not there fundamental laws well that’s a great question look um hopefully you know we’ll be asking these kinds of questions for a long time you know i think one of the really interesting questions biologists would love to know let’s you know you can talk about other universes but let’s just let’s just think about life somewhere else so almost every biologist i’ve talked to about this thinks there’s life elsewhere in the universe in fact that it’s abundant now i’m not talking about dinosaurs and humans i’m talking about at least microscopic sort of microbial life that unicellular life would be widespread in the universe if the earth is not so special in fact we don’t even know whether life came here from somewhere else so what kind of chemistry would govern that life and gosh would we like to see how many chemistries you know are available for life um and that sort of gets your question i mean we don’t have to leave this universe to ask about fundamental laws i think you know life is is what i’m really talking about tonight and life you know has these things we’ve discovered about you know um what makes life work how many different solutions are there to to life and uh boy wouldn’t it be great to to be able to get a glimpse of uh of something else obviously a lot of inferences are being drawn about the habitability of other worlds and you know nasa is going to run missions to some of the moons in our solar system in hopes of picking up some you know some evidence of life so maybe you know maybe sometime in the future we’re going to actually be able to sample something else but i think that gets at the heart of your question which is you know how different can the rules be and i i understand that physicists are asking this question about physical laws but i i’m going to ask something a little more approximate which is just life you know this replicating creatures um how many different ways are they do it and we need we need we need at least one more sample to start to answer that question great um and then there’s one final one in here from kelly i wonder if you’re willing to take it kelly you’ve stumped me about living systems theory i’m not familiar enough about uh to either agree or disagree so now you just gave me a homework assignment but i wish i could have given you a deeper answer so um i i guess uh you’ve you’ve another exposure of my ignorance so smart seattle crowds i gotta i gotta really bring my a-game when i come to town hall well we really appreciate that you came um really interesting talk tonight thank you for elevating our our thinking beyond uh some of the silly headlines that we’re also preoccupied with these days uh yeah well i thank everybody you know um i’m i live eight miles from the white house so i’m in the other washington and uh you know no biologist i know ever imagined we’d ever go through anything like this as a country or a world so i appreciate the interest and uh let’s hope maybe in 2021 we we do this in person all right yeah cool vaccine yeah science again gee is there a theme there yeah uh i want to thank everybody in the audience for joining us tonight um i want to encourage you to buy a copy of sean’s book through elliot bay if you click the link on your live stream page that’s going to take you right to their website to purchase a copy support them uh let’s keep our local bookstores going um and if you’re interested in more town hall events you can uh follow this crowd cash channel by clicking the follow button in the right hand corner or check out our calendar online at townhallseattle.org sean thank you again this was a real delight and hopefully we’ll see you again for the next book in person thanks candace appreciate it