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The freedom to work without short-term justification


The importance of conversation for science
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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The lab in Cambridge was absolutely the most marvellous place to work in because one would do a different thing almost every hour. I had an office which I shared with Francis, had shared this office with him since I came to Cambridge. We lived together in the, the old hut at the, at the Cavendish, in... till 1962, when we moved up to Hills Road, to the new lab. And what we had done in the new lab was to equip it with blackboards. We still liked chalk and blackboards. We had one blackboard in our old little office, but we acquired lots of them. There were three altogether. And on this blackboard we would meet, often every day, and talk about everything. We could talk about an experimental result and say what could this possibly mean? Or Francis would tell me he's just read this paper, these are his views about it. And what was very interesting is that we pursued very... very different, divergent paths, we... but came together for these discussions. The Americans in our lab always wanted journal clubs or formal discussion groups. I've never been in favour of this. And I tell them if they want it, they organise it themselves, I'm not going to organise it. I did for a year, form something called the SB Educational Society, in which everybody was told with 5 minutes' notice, that they had to come and tell me what they were doing to educate me. This again also wasn't liked by the Americans, who required time for preparation of what they had to say. But it seemed to me if you had to prepare anything on what you were doing at the moment you'd better get worried about that, because it means you don't know what you're doing. However, those... the other very informal discussion group was known as the Saturday morning coffee. In the lab we congregated in the kitchen, the sterilising kitchen on the second floor, where we made coffee on a Saturday morning. And there people came from all over the lab, and at the coffee there, would discuss everything: molecular structure, embryology, psychology, sometimes politics, just anything. But there were many, many interesting discussions there, and I feel this kind of ongoing conversation is so important to science. It's important because I'm not the sort of person that likes to think in, in isolation. There are a number of people I know who go away and cook up a whole theory and then come and do it. I don't. I think a lot of what's beneficial is by conversation, because an idea usually forms in my mind, it's at least 50% wrong the first time it appears. There's something wrong with it. And it's only in playing with it, if I can call it that, that you can refine it and see what its essential things. And I believe that interaction is... is sort of part of the great joys of science, of suddenly saying, gee, you know, I actually got it wrong the first time, now I can see it. And of course the other great joy is to be able to convert that into an experiment, then go and do the experiment and get the answer.

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



Duration: 4 minutes, 7 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010