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The importance of conversation for science


A meeting with the President of the British Computing Society
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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I never forget that I was once asked whether I would meet a man who was the President of The British Computing Society, and I said, sure, and he came up and we had lunch together in Cambridge. He says, 'I've been dying to meet you because we're interested in writing programs for banks. What we'd like to know is how does the biological system perform all these complicated things? Maybe there's some clues to us for programming'. I said, 'You know, I'm really delighted to meet you because I'm interested in how do these biological systems do all these complex things, and I thought well, maybe if I studied some complex programs for banks I would get some clues to explaining this'. So we both departed in great mutual ignorance, which is the best way. But I think this sort of thing did spark off an interest in my... of mine, which I still have, which is questions of the theory of elaborate systems, which I've never had time to work on properly. But I think there is... I mean, the first question about... in this field is: is there a theory of elaborate systems? I'm afraid I can't answer that yet, but I think there is a style of thinking that one has to use which escapes very much what, what we can do in, in our normal thought processes.

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: British Computing Society

Duration: 1 minute, 38 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010