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Evaluation of my character


My strengths and weaknesses
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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[Q] What do you think your particular skills are, and your weaknesses?

This is the time when one has to have true confessions.

[Q] I'm afraid so, this is true confessions.

Well, I think my skills are in getting things started. And I think that that's gone through my whole life. In fact, that's what I enjoy most, it's the opening game. And I'm afraid that once it gets past that point I get rather bored with it and want to do other things. So being a permanent post-doc is really very attractive, and… and that, I think, is the exciting part of intellectual life in science. And I'm not… I'm not very good at… the other thing I'm rather good at is talking. When Fred Sanger was asked to give me a recommendation, I was told that he said, ‘Oh, Brenner, the man who talks a lot’. So I think… and I think keeping up the conversation is one of the important roles one can have in science. Because I think the whole idea that science is conducted by lone men working in… alone in rooms and struggling with the forces of nature is absolutely ridiculous because I think it is a social activity of the highest sort. And so I think keeping up the conversation, and of doing experiments with words. I'm fascinated by that, and I think that that is what… that's how ideas can come. I would say most of what I say is rubbish, but amidst the kind of stream of unconsciousness, if I can coin a phrase, there is, I mean, the odd… the odd thing that can be developed into something. I think I'm rather good also at brainwashing, which is to persuade people to do things that their upbringing tells them they ought not to be doing. And I think… so that I think I… I think in convincing people to join the crusade, that I think I'm rather good at. I'm not a very good administrator, in fact, I'm rather hopeless, and I get by… by improvisation, which I suppose is the way we should do it. And so as I've got older I look… I look less and less ahead, so that… that makes it easier, if you're only worried what's going to happen next month, then that makes it easier than to worry what's going to happen over the next five years. And as for my… well, I think one of my weaknesses is – and it's something I've always regretted – is I'm not as good as a mathematician as I really wanted to be. I find mathematics very difficult. And, in fact, it is computers that gave me a great hitch-up in the world, because I turn out to be quite a good programmer, and I can understand all of that. And so I have found that trying to do mathematics, which is something I really wanted to do and thought that I should be able to do well, I find it difficult and I'm not very good at it. I'm also not very good at getting things right the first time around. But I think that's a strength and not a weakness, because I think if one gets it straight the first time around it's probably boring. And getting it’s wrong half the time, that I think is… is the interesting thing. I'm very bad at writing, I really resent writing and in fact I… had Francis not locked me up in a room during our career together, I probably wouldn't have written as many papers as I did because somehow once it's solved and I know the answer, all the rest of that – which is writing it up for publication and dealing with referees and editors – just seems so much of an unnecessary, boring appendage to the actual work of scientific creation that I… I would have been quite happy if I'd had a ghost in the lab who would have written my papers for me. But I'm not very good at that.

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: Frederick Sanger

Duration: 5 minutes, 22 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010