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Karl Popper and the philosophy of science


Missing out on a great discovery
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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When I graduated, Helen Spurway, Haldane's wife, given me a great mass of data she'd collected and saying 'Look, these data really look strange and I can't make sense of them, but if you can make sense of them then we could publish them together.' And I looked at them for a bit, and I thought, 'Well, I don't want to look at Helen's data, I want to discover my own things, you know.' But the data must have stuck in my mind. And about a year later there was a paper in Nature by Bruno Pontecorvo, on the white locus in Drosophila, showing that the linear sructure... the linear arrangements of mutations in the white locus, in Drosophila, judged entirely from genetic breeding data, recombination and so on. And I can remember to this day, sitting there, and thinking, 'Oh, that's what Helen's data means, that Helen had the perfect data demonstrating the linear structure of a gene, but she hadn't seen what it meant, I hadn't seen what it meant.' And I thought, you know, it's just... we all find ourselves in this situation, there are more things we didn't discover than we did. But there, I had the data in my hands and I didn't... didn't see the point. But I think, you know, it doesn't matter, I guess.

[Q] There are have got to be things staring us in the face now that will be important in the future.

Yeah, that's a good... another parlour game one can try, you know, what is it that everybody in this room knows, or at least all the biologists in this room know, which if only we realised was important, we could get the next Nobel Prize? There must be things like that out there, but they're so hard to spot, aren't they, you know, until somebody tells you, and then you feel an idiot.

The late British biologist John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) is famous for applying game theory to the study of natural selection. At Eton College, inspired by the work of old Etonian JBS Haldane, Maynard Smith developed an interest in Darwinian evolutionary theory and mathematics. Then he entered University College London (UCL) to study fruit fly genetics under Haldane. In 1973 Maynard Smith formalised a central concept in game theory called the evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS). His ideas, presented in books such as 'Evolution and the Theory of Games', were enormously influential and led to a more rigorous scientific analysis and understanding of interactions between living things.

Listeners: Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins was educated at Oxford University and has taught zoology at the universities of California and Oxford. He is a fellow of New College, Oxford and the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Dawkins is one of the leading thinkers in modern evolutionary biology. He is also one of the best read and most popular writers on the subject: his books about evolution and science include "The Selfish Gene", "The Extended Phenotype", "The Blind Watchmaker", "River Out of Eden", "Climbing Mount Improbable", and most recently, "Unweaving the Rainbow".

Tags: Nature, Helen Spurway, Bruno Pontecorvo

Duration: 1 minute, 49 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008