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Modular 1: The first computer for the lab


Computing: the beginning of the love affair
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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One of the most interesting things that happened in this time is the kind of long love affair with computers that got consummated during this period. We needed to record an enormous amount of information of the reconstruction of the nervous system. We wondered a lot how this would be done, and of course came to the conclusion that we should use a computer to help us. And of course in those days biologists were very antagonistic to computers. They thought that anybody interesting in computing was choosing the easy way out of a responsible job. In other words, if you didn't work at the bench you weren't worth anything. Graham Mitchison was a mathematician, and of course so was David Marr. And we asked the MRC [Medical Research Council] for a computer to help us do this work, that is put the… put the data of the reconstruction into the machine. And John White had in fact come to help us do this. Now, in those days computing was only done in computer centres, and the idea that you would have a dedicated machine devoted to one kind of project was still very rare indeed. And in fact certainly organisations like the MRC hadn't come up to this because they were very interested into how many operators we would have, how many shifts we would have, and in fact we tried to tell them that we don't want to do computing this way, computing should be… computers should be servants and not masters. But there was a whole theory that they were very expensive and that therefore one had to use every moment of their time. In fact, that's when I invented something called ad hoc for a style of computing. When someone said what did ad hoc stand for, I said it stood for hands-on computing.

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: Medical Research Council, David Marr, Graham Mitchison

Duration: 2 minutes, 29 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010