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The effect of individual personalities in science


Would you prefer to be Newton or Shakespeare?
Francis Crick Scientist
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[Q] Would you prefer to be Newton or Shakespeare? And the implication of the thing is something to do with some important difference between science and… and… if Newton hadn’t had been Newton, some other person would have been Newton. And if someone wasn’t Crick or Watson, presumably someone else would have….

Well no, that’s not quite right. No, I don’t think that’s right… quite right. I don’t think anybody… any other person would have been Newton. But other people collectively and possibly singly might have done Newton’s work, because… Newton did a lot of things. I mean, he did all the work on optics, for example, as… as well as all the… all the work on… on mechanics, the Principia and so on, and… and a number of other things as well. And… so, they certainly would have been done, but Newton was outstanding first of all because he was both an experimentalist and a… and a theorist. He built the first reflecting telescope. I mean, he was good at that sort of things. He’d… he did the experiments on… on optics himself with the prism he bought at the fair and so on, as well as doing all the… inventing the calculus, as well as being a mathematician. So, he was outstanding because he… because he did so many things and did them so well. And, after all, to some extent, that's what we feel about Shakespeare – he has a universal quality. But they are very different and I don’t think you can say whether you’d prefer to be… I don’t think it’s a meaningful question. I mean, you are yourself. What would you… what do you mean… how would you know what you’d prefer if something was changed and what would you change?

The late Francis Crick, one of Britain's most famous scientists, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. He is best known for his discovery, jointly with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins, of the double helix structure of DNA, though he also made important contributions in understanding the genetic code and was exploring the basis of consciousness in the years leading up to his death in 2004.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Principia, Isaac Newton, William Shakespeare, James Watson

Duration: 1 minute, 30 seconds

Date story recorded: 1993

Date story went live: 08 January 2010