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My collection of journal reprints


How do I deal with a saturated memory?
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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The question is do I make notes or do I remember it all? I make notes. I used to remember more than I did, but that's because I think my memory stores are full. I don't think my memory's failing me, I've just reached saturation. In fact, I take this very seriously because some years ago when I was a member of an MRC [Medical Research Council] committee, there were certain papers I refused to read and when people asked me had you read the papers, I said no, and when they said why not, I said I now divide papers into three classes: those that give me information, those that have no effect, and those that remove information from my head. And the latter is in this class and I'm... I've got very little left and I'm not going to give it over to rubbish like this. However, I think that I do remember things, although I can actually remember when my memory first began to fail me, and it was a very interesting thing. Somebody asked me... in fact it was Miranda Robertson asked me: ‘who invented interferon?’, and I couldn't remember, but the interesting thing is that after a while I said ‘It was Abraham’. Now, the interesting thing is that Abraham didn't invent interferon. He invented cephalosporin. The person who invented interferon is Isaacs. Now you will immediately note that there is a... old connection from enforced study of the Old Testament when I was young, of the connection between Abraham and Isaac, which just shows you something about how memory is stored. But the immediate connection had been lost there.

I do make notes, I make extensive notes on everything. I travel around and write down things. I play around in the corner of these things. I used to write things on index cards in the old days. I now tend to write them on exercise... in exercise books, which never get completed. I have a lot of exercise books which have references there and then things, and some of these have never been looked at again. Some have actually developed into whole lines of research. Szilárd was like this. Szilárd always wrote things in exercise books, but what was remarkable was he threw them away as soon as he finished them. And I can remember sitting in Pasteur Institute where Leo was talking to Mel Cohen and Mel Cohen was telling him everything of his new theories of antibody formation, which Leo wrote down. He came to the end of an exercise book and he threw it in the garbage can and took another one out of his pocket and went on writing. So... but I kept everything and... and of course in these days where the literature is so enormous, one just can't do it. But I actually read Chemical Abstracts regularly. Yes, and I'd keep little notes with all of these things. This was before the days of copying, that effectively you had to follow the literature in this way.

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: Miranda Robertson

Duration: 4 minutes

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010