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Introduction to Biology - The Secret of Life

edX · Massachusetts Institute of Technology · 14 HN comments

HN Academy has aggregated all Hacker News stories and comments that mention edX's "Introduction to Biology - The Secret of Life" from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Course Description

Explore the secret of life through the basics of biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology, recombinant DNA, genomics and rational medicine.

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This course is offered by Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the edX platform.
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Hacker News Stories and Comments

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Actually, I would throw this into the ring instead:

by Professor Eric Lander

> Introduction to Biology - The Secret of Life

> Explore the secret of life through the basics of biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology, recombinant DNA, genomics and rational medicine.

It's really well done and genomics is the focus. I took many dozens of edX and Coursra courses over the years, this is one of the top 5% of the courses there I would say.

I don't understand the phrase "from a programmer's perspective", or "for Engineers" in the title on top.

As a programmer whos studied CS but also took numerous life science courses throughout my life. You want to learn biology you study biology, what does a "programmer's view", or an engineer's, have to do with it? You use the correct tool for the job, and having a background in both, I don't see this working out well, more like the opposite actually.

The point of looking at biology for an engineer or programmer should be to broaden ones horizons, not to use ones internal models build for a completely different field in another one that really is not like that at all. IMO it's best to forget all computer metaphors here.


By the way, since there was something about this yesterday, there also is this course: - it too is very good. A good knowledge of organic chemistry is a prerequisite, but there are plenty of equally interesting course resources for that available too, including even Khan Academy (, or to give a(nother) random link,

Biology becomes a lot more fun with this foundation already established in ones head.

Could you give a list of your favourite MOOCs (on any topics)?
By far the single best MOOC I've ever taken is edX's Introduction to Biology taught by Eric Lander at MIT.

And it's 100% free! Great lectures and the simluated "TA sessions" and esp. online quizzes did a great job reinforcing my knowledge.

I have an undergrad degree in biology from a top research university from many years ago and this course was so informative, effective, and inspiring, that i considered dropping out of tech to go to grad school in biology. Truly excellent.

I've been working professional jobs for more than a decade. Despite my full-time jobs, I've dedicated hundreds (maybe thousands?) of hours of personal time over the last 6 years teaching myself vector calculus, linear algebra, abstract algebra, molecular biology, organic chemistry, and other nerdy topics. Mostly, I use textbooks and work on problem sets. I sometimes watch videos which can be super-helpful. But the best single course I've taken in that time is the MIT edX course.

I would love to know more about your process/journey of self studying mathematics and the books that helped.
My initial goal was to understand mathematics well enough to have a some grasp of "Deep Learning" (2016) textbook by Goodfellow, Bengio, and Courville. I meant like 50-85% understanding of the math depending on the chapter. And being able to have reasonable understanding of deep learning papers being published in the 2012-2018 period.

1. Because my math was pretty rusty, I started with single-variable calculus. Good resources for this are Khan Academy including pre-calc prequisites all the way up to multivariable calc and linear algebra. I'm not sure which textbook on single-variable calc is good but there are many many to choose from.

2. For multivariable calc, I began with Lang's "Calculus of Several Variables".

3. After Lang, I did a lot of the problems in the first half (differentiation only) of Baxandall and Liebeck's "Vector Calculus". This is truly an outstanding book; such clear exposition and excellent organization with many examples. It was a little more formal in it's presentation than I was used to. But this helped me learn to write decent and well-organized proofs. And when I got to item 6 below, Baxandall and Liebeck got me ready!

4. In parallel, I studied linear algebra. My two main intro books were Strang's "Introduction to Linear Algebra" (4th edition).

But I found Strang (super popular among college students) was well-supplemented by Kuldeep Singh's "Linear Algebra Step-by-Step"

5. At this point, the Khan Academy videos on linear algebra were very helpful.

6. Now that I was ready, I started Axler's "Linear Algebra Done Right". It's more formal and abstract compared to 4 and 5 above. I love it though! It's taken me years and I'm still only part way through. It is one of my all-time favorite books--not just in math--but in any field. I'm a bit slow at this type of abstract / proof-based math but it's deeply deeply satisfying.

7. Recently, I started Jacobson's "Basic Algebra I". I'm only at the beginning of my journey into modern algebra but I really like it so far.

Hope this helps!

I would suggest taking MIT's Secret of Life course on EdX. Its taught by Eric Lander who was a key figure in the human genome project and was a mathematician beforehand, so he follows an axiomatic approach that is much different than the way other schools teach biology

Alternatively, Harvard Extension School has some great biology courses you can sign up and get credit for. Though those are mostly for pre-med career changers

Anything with Dr. Eric Lander from MIT (e.g. Hands down the best lecturer I've ever encountered.
Eric Lander was the President's science advisor? That dude's Intro to Biology course on MitX is outstanding!

We're witnessing the bio century. CAR-T gene therapies have been demonstrated to "cure" cancer. And the coming Bio Cloud will liberate genomic experimentation for the masses. I found Eric Lander's intro course to be great. But it's a few years old now, and was wondering if there wasn't something more contemporary, with the latest state of the art techniques such as AlphaFold. Best of Luck ;)

This seems like a pretty good course and seems to match perfectly what I was looking for. Thank you very much for the pointer! As for it being a bit outdated, it should still be fine as it will at least give me a better understanding of things and help me being able to figure out other materials to study.
Checkout the MIT class: Biology Secret of Life by Eric Lander, who is a mathematician turned geneticist who led the Human Genome Project. He teaches in an axiomatic way, which I think many here would appreciate.

I found the teaching to be way better than any high school class, which is the biology background for most people.

Wow, I need to check that out, thanks!
Nov 19, 2020 · srom on I should have loved biology
I am currently self-learning biology and I just completed MIT's 7.00x introduction to biology on edX [1].

The course is outstanding and anything but a "lifeless recitation of names". Prof Eric Lander (key researcher on the Human Genome Project) goes through two centuries of research and takes the time to explain how and why discoveries came into existence. It goes from the early days of biochemistry to recent major advancement such as CRISPR/Cas9.

I'm looking to apply my ML expertise to the field of biology and this course was a real windfall, I highly recommend it.


I would recommend the edX Introduction to Biology course [0].

It is a simplified version of the introductory biology course at MIT, that doesn't _focus_ on naming/defining things in biology. Instead, it uses the lenses of genetics and biochemistry to explore how the core machinery of life works, and how we got to our current understanding. That said, there is some amount of memorization that is unavoidable.


May 25, 2020 · AareyBaba on Learn Genetics
The Molecular Biology of the Cell is the standard text.

But you'll probably benefit from taking an Edx course

Do I have to brush up on inorganic and orgranic chemistry in order to get the most out of this book?
You should be able to get through with basic high-school chemisty. You need to know there are elements C, H, N, O, P, Ca, K, S, know what an ionic bond and covalent bonds is and be able to look at the structure of a molecule.
Well, it very much depends on ones goals and ones context, doesn't it? Which impacts what ones brain pays wants and what it focuses its attention on, and what it filters out no matter how much you attempt to cram it in.

What I found a revelation and a bug eye opener - yes as a (CS degree) programmer - was: medicine, chemistry (and org. chem and bio.chem), biology. From Coursera and When I did this it was all completely free, now they put some restrictions on some courses (Coursera more so than edX), for example that as a non-payer you cannot do all the exercises.

Even when/if the linked courses are over, accessing there content should still be possible. The courses are free, a certificate is not necessary. Some homework or exams may not be available for non-payers.

Best (university level introductory) course for biology:


Physiology: I actually found a lot of lectures on Google better than any of the online courses, start from

Fundamentals of neuro-science: followed by "Medical Neuroscience" on Coursera: -- easily one of the best courses out there

A very simple course combining (very simple, beginner level) programming and (basic) biology: -- what's interesting here for a programmer definitely isn't the Javascript code, but asking biology questions that can be answered with (even simple) code.

Staticstics is a huge part of medicine and biology - plenty of good courses on probability, statistics (all levels) and courses using R or Python, here a random example course:

On so many more levels than I can briefly write down here this "field trip" into bio-sciences felt soooo much better than learning yet another programming language. Let's keep in mind, regardless of C++, Haskell, Javascript, and/or whatever framework, the hardware underneath all of it is all the exact same architecture. Looking at differences between the programming languages now seems to me like looking at a surface that to a naked eye looks completely smooth, but if you zoom in far enough with an electron microscope it looks like a messy mountain area. But when you do that you lose sight of the big(ger) picture. The excourse into (organic and bio-) chemistry and biology helped me get a better sense of where we are, at least it feels that way. The neuroscience helps remaining grounded (and getting more cynical) when reading popular headlines about "neural network" and "AI" and the like.

Definitely Eric Lander's Introduction to Biology - The Secret Of Life class (MITx 7.00x)

Firm grounding in the Central Dogma. Covers the entire history of genetics. From Gregor Mendel's peas. To Morgenstern's Fruit Fly Lab. And right up to the present day Supreme Court BRCA case and CRISPR/Cas9. Essential background for understanding the coming century of New Biotech.

Thank you, this looks like just the kind of thing I've been looking for!
I took this course recently. I Iove how he took you back in time and let you experience the importance of each discovery.
Here is a short excerpt (5 minutes) of an MIT lecture video that tells you a lot about Mendel and where he came from:

The full course is here - I cannot recommend it enough, the professor is pure gold(!):

Mendel was brilliant - but actually also a bit unlucky (or lucky?). All the traits he checked in his peas were on different chromosomes. He missed the deeper insights resulting form the confusion when inheritance of traits isn't independent, when genes were located on the same chromosome. That lead to the discovery of more mechanisms of inheritance... the random rearrangement of sections of chromosomes that takes place during meiosis.

I don't have a TV and quit most news and replaced it with


- (now less that it has changed)

There are others like Udacity but I found that I ended up taking almost all courses on only these two sites.

Over 70 courses thus far, most of them completely outside my own field (I'm an IT consultant with a CS masters). Currently open courses (all edX):

- Soil4Life: Sustainable Soil Management ( - I want to learn something substantial about agriculture, not a lot of courses compared to other subjects but this seems like a good start)

- MITs truly excellent Introduction to Biology - The Secret of Life (again, I had to stop in the middle last time I took it):

- First Nights: Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring: Modernism, Ballet, and Riots (

Examples from the past: Western Civilization: Ancient and Medieval Europe, Pet Birds 101: Introduction to Avian Care and Medicine for the Pet Bird Enthusiast, Medical Neuroscience (huge course - >30 hours lecture videos, Coursera), A Global History of Architecture, Cellular mechanisms of brain function, Human Anatomy, Introduction to Physiology, Principles of Biochemistry, Solid State Chemistry, Medicinal Chemistry, Statistics and R for the Life Sciences, Networks, Crowds and Markets, Introduction to Big Data with Apache Spark, Vocal Recording Technology, Horse Nutrition, and many more.

I think this is closer to what the article advocates. You just replaced relatively shallow news sources for others.

Try taking some courses. I have the advantage to work from home, I know if I worked 9-5 in an office I would be way too exhausted to do much of the above. But you can still find pleasurable easy courses like the History of Architecture or the entire First Nights series about five pieces of classical music which don't take much mental effort. Each time I read news now it feels like eating a McDonalds meal when you are actually used to real food. It keeps your mind occupied but it feels like there are no "nutrients" (in the news), nothing of substance.

I honestly find coursera and edx are by far the best use of my time too. Structured learning with a beginning, an end and a few individuals (professors) that specialize in a field. I'm doing things that ARE actually in my field (similar to yours) but set me apart completely at work where most people don't take the time to do any sort of learning and just focus on the daily grind.

As a side note, the other more fun yet still kinda learning use of my time has been to watch a few older Japanese shows - not the crazy all-over-the-place stuff they have today. For example, Musashi (2003). It's fun to watch and at the end of every episode they talk about a site in Japan where Musashi traveled in real life. I find this type of show enriching. Another good one is a show called Change (from 2008) which is again Japanese about a young man randomly becoming prime minister of Japan. The show again discusses the intricacies of Japanese politics in a funny way but with a big dose of the real issues in Japan (e.g., the small number of young people vs the old).

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