BILL #1: “The Ultraviolet Garden” by Richard Dawkins


Bill&Ted2Crop.jpgThe inaugural BILL, BILL the First, primordial BILL, the founder, the prototype, the archetype, the Platonic BILL form. It has to be something special.

The inaugural BILL is “The Ultraviolet Garden,” one episode from a 1991 lecture series by Richard Dawkins. The series of five lectures was called “Growing Up in the Universe” and was the 1991 edition of The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. That series is meant to be enjoyed by children and adults alike, and “The Ultraviolet Garden” accomplishes this quite well.

While enjoying our first BILL, you may want to watch for the interesting features, concepts, quotes, and questions listed below. Or just make your own list. Either way, questions and observations and further discussion are welcome in the comments.

  • What are weeds “for”? What are animals “for”? For humans?
  • Flowers are there because - in a sense - bees have cultivated them, domesticated them.
  • We have to look at flowers through the eyes of bees (who see in UV).
  • A real bat, with its clicks made audible.
  • A hilariously dated “computer virus.” (And some bashing of those who write them.)
  • “What seems pointless to us is not the point.” (Re viruses)
  • Discussion of The Total Self-Copying Program.
  • Robots! (From 1991)
  • Stick insects! (As robots)
  • This is fundamentally what a human or an elephant is. “We are machines built by DNA, whose purpose is to make more copies of the same DNA.”
  • Some typical Dawkins-esque musings on the origin of life.
  • A panspermia animation. “He doesn’t really believe in panspermia, but it’s a nice animation anyway.” Looks a bit like Spore.
  • Formation of eukaryotic cells by “ganging up” of bacteria, which ganged up together to form… Volvox!
  • A giant metal Trojan horse and the concept of exponential growth.
  • “Could you bring the blue whale, please, Bryson?”
  • How many cell generations does it take to make Douglas Adams?
  • “Gigatechnology.” (Engineering something a billion times bigger than you are.) And then some mention of nanotechnology.
  • “That’s American for ‘goods train.’”
  • “Nanotechnology is old. It’s we ‘big things’ that are new, alien, strange, and futuristic. We are products of a flashy new ‘gigatechnology.’ Fundamentally, life is based in the world of nanotechnology.”
  • A giant fungus-ant colony. A macaw.
  • “From the point of view of plant DNA, the bee’s wings may as well be plant wings.”


This lecture was given in 1991 to an audience made up primarily of young students.

Back then, the difficulties of making the transition from using teleological language to the more abstract concepts of order and organization emerging out of stochastic processes had not been achieved; especially with students of the ages in the audience in this video.

I wonder how Dawkins would do that lecture today. I suspect somewhat the same way if presented to the same age level. The full appreciation of the emergence of order and organization seems to require additional years of cognitive development and experience with a wide range of simpler examples.

As Dawkins went through the various examples using words like “purpose” and “because,” or “this is for,” I felt a bit uneasy. Yet I still find it a challenge to explain the concepts of evolution to that age group.

I’m not sure that the research on cognitive development shows that greater abstraction is possible for students of the ages shown here. Much more has to be done to lay the groundwork, and that takes time; by which time the students will have matured to the point that greater abstraction would then be appropriate.

Flowers in UV light - $12.88

Bat sonar detector - $125.99

Douglas Adams reading from Hitchhikers GUide to the Galaxy - priceless

I guess I was right that the spouse of an actress who portrayed a Gallifreyan Time Lord on “Doctor Who” would be indeed the very first BILL. I can’t think of anyone else who might be more worthy than him, than maybe, the likes of Stephen Jay Gould and E. O. Wilson.

Douglas Adams reading from Hitchhikers GUide to the Galaxy - priceless

What, not $42?

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Steve Matheson published on July 27, 2011 11:04 AM.

They have TED. We have BILL. Excellent! was the previous entry in this blog.

The Norway Murders, Christianity, Darwin, and tolerance is the next entry in this blog.

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