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Humans' interest in science


Self motivation and independent learning
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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Thursday, 17 February 2011 02:05 AM
Perhaps the best advice for life: self motivation, learning from books, and just doing...
Perhaps the best advice for life: self motivation, learning from books, and "just doing it".

Well, of course I had decided that I wanted to be a scientist.

[Q] Why?

Because I thought that it was something that you could actually do, and I should have said that of course the thing that turned me onto biology was the book The Science of Life by Wells… Huxley and Wells, I think it is… just G P Wells. And this book, of which I still have the copy, which I have to confess I stole from the public library and told them I lost it because I couldn't get a copy of it at the time, and so I paid the fine which may be… may have been two shillings in those days – that's a lot of money – and that is the book that really turned me on to biology. Because of course the biology at school, that… the things we learnt were quite simple. You know, they were about beans and how beans grew and so on, and I was always very interested in the experimental part of it. And I had realised in this way that you didn't actually have to ask people to do things; you could just go and do them. If you can get hold of a book that told you… introduced you to how to do it, you could just go and do it. So that is something I think that I have kept with me all my life because I've never learnt anything from going to courses. If I want to learn a new subject, I get a book and I start doing it. And it's advice I've always gived… I mean, when I got interested in computing in the early '60s, I started by learning an assembly language and actually programming a computer because there's… and I think in today's environment where nobody can learn anything unless they go to a course, or do this in a formal sense, I just never had that since there was no one really to teach me, and so I had cultivated – not cultivated, it had just come, probably out of necessity combined with inclination – just the idea that knowledge is out there; it's available. If you can't buy the book you can always go to the public library and steal it if necessary. So, I think that that is… and I think that's one of the most important things, to become a scientist.

[Q] Sydney, it seems you were totally self-motivated. There were no friends, no teachers, no parents, nothing.

Yes, I mean, you know, I'd fortunately grown up in a culture where learning was quite important. The... the old… the Jewish immigrants into South Africa had come with the old Jewish culture that learning was important and of course if one could divert this learning to become a surgeon or a lawyer that was even better. My mother always said you should never marry a girl because… for her money but it's just as easy to fall in love with a rich girl as it is with a poor girl. So, I mean, there was that kind of culture which never said, 'This is nonsense', and so there was no stopping. School I think was just… if anybody had been through that, that was the thing, so I think you can become totally self-motivated because the world is out there and it's just available.

South African Sydney Brenner (1927-2019) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. His joint discovery of messenger RNA, and, in more recent years, his development of gene cloning, sequencing and manipulation techniques along with his work for the Human Genome Project have led to his standing as a pioneer in the field of genetics and molecular biology.

Listeners: Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London. His research interests are in the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo. He was originally trained as a civil engineer in South Africa but changed to research in cell biology at King's College, London in 1955. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1980 and awarded the CBE in 1990. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999. He has presented science on both radio and TV and for five years was Chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science.



Listen to Lewis Wolpert at Web of Stories



Tags: The Science of Life, 1960s, South Africa, GP Wells, HG Wells, JS Huxley

Duration: 3 minutes, 54 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 24 January 2008