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A nightingale’s song


From ornithology to biology
John Bonner Scientist
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I've often wondered how it was that I became interested in biology because there was nobody in my family who was a biologist, and I didn't have any friends who were biologists. But we lived in London for a year. And I spent every day for a walk in St James's Park, and just watched the ducks. And then, any house we rented in Onslow Square, well, Onslow Gardens, there were bird books. So I looked everything up, and had a grand time. And I walked to this museum in South Kensington, the Natural History Museum. That was heaven. They had these fantastic little exhibits, small ones, with hummingbirds in them. And the hummingbirds were all on sticks, or branches of some sort and they just looked like a little jewel, a whole box. And anyhow, I just had a wonderful time there. And I was fascinated by eggs and I got the curator of oology to show me his collection. And then, but all sorts of different kinds of wonderful bliss. And I didn't realise it, but this was really what started me.

My father, in his own peculiar way, decided that ornithology was not a kind of occupation which would give livelihood or anything of that sort. That's not true, but however that's what he thought and that I ought to do something more substantial. So he bought me, as a present, an HG Wells, GP Wells, oh no, Julian Huxley and GP Wells Science of Life, which is a huge volume, and typical HG Wells kind of organization. It was really a very good read, except that it has a whole section on mediums and tables thumping and stuff like that which seems rather quaint these days, but I didn't even read those parts. I looked at the photographs of people with ectoplasm coming out of their nose and that was my idea of all it consisted of. But anyhow, I really started to read this huge book. And my father was absolutely right. He trapped me. And he got me from birds to all of biology. And it's all due to Huxley, Wells and Wells… Huxley and Wells.

John Tyler Bonner (born in 1920) is an emeritus professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University. He is a pioneer in the use of cellular slime molds to understand evolution and development and is one of the world's leading experts on cellular slime molds. He says that his prime interests are in evolution and development and that he uses the cellular slime molds as a tool to seek an understanding of those twin disciplines. He has written several books on developmental biology and evolution, many scientific papers, and has produced a number of works in biology. He has led the way in making Dictyostelium discoideum a model organism central to examining some of the major questions in experimental biology.

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: Natural History Museum, Science of Life, HG Wells, GP Wells, Julian Huxley

Duration: 3 minutes, 33 seconds

Date story recorded: February 2016

Date story went live: 14 September 2016