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Teaching yourself through reading


My collection of journal reprints
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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I had an incredible reprint collection. And so did Francis actually. In fact, we put ours together and I've still got it, and this is reprints that go back to — at least in my case — to the mid 1940s and in Francis's later, and they were arranged alphabetically, so you had to know the author. And they are... I've still got all these boxes, it's about 100 boxes of reprints. I did cull them the other... because... just because of space storage... but they are wonderful because they showed... you had to write for all of these, and... and so they show you... they showed me at any rate what I'd read. And in fact I had a... I noticed that in Judson's history he referred to this paper of Kurt Stern with an early speculation on coding. Now I drew his attention to that because I had a reprint of this paper which I had got because I was an avid reader of the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, which of course nobody's ever heard of today and I found this article there and I wrote to Kurt Stern from South Africa, and I got a reprint, and I still have that reprint. So this could... so this is a style that I got accustomed to because in South Africa that's the only way you could get hold of interesting things to read. So reading I think is important, but I think knowledge is dangerous and, to... to research. I really think that a modicum of ignorance is... is absolutely essential. Because otherwise you don't try anything. And that's why I think in any line of research people can get saturated very quickly because they just know everything. And when a student comes and says, ‘Have you, why don't we try this?’ you tend to say ‘Oh, don't be silly, you know, that'll never work’. I had a student who did this, was Anand Sarabhai, a very good student, and he came to me one day and suggested an experiment and I said: ‘Look, I don't think it'll work, but please go ahead and try it’. So he went down to the cold room and he got two bottles of phage and he crossed them together and the experiment worked. Later we calculated what was the probability that those two bottles were at the front of the queue, because he just took the first ones. The probability was about a million, because I think there were 1000 bottles and the chances of getting two there is one over 10002. So it was a million to one. But he had what we called the luck of the Sarabhais and so it worked, so after that everybody asked him to choose the bottles, because that was one way of getting your experiments to work.

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: Kurt Stern

Duration: 3 minutes, 27 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010