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Lab cocktails


Getting into the philosophy of science
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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One of the things that I think became very important in this course was that we all had to do… as part of the formal course, we had to do a course of lectures and write an examination in a subject called the history and philosophy of science. Everybody doing a BSc degree had to do this, and this was given by… at least the lectures here were given by a man called Brian Farrell, who was a logical positivist, and who later returned to Oxford where he taught. And of course this aroused my interest in philosophy because we had to read… and the books that we had to read... there was a book by Crowther – I think it's called The Social Relations of Science. We had to read books on the history of science, and the philosophy, and of course this is where one became introduced to... these… to the whole of logical positivism. And that became a very important thing because I became fascinated by these people who had actually become… not philosophers that had gone to science, but people who had taken science… of course they were positivists – I didn't know about Compte at that stage – but people who had taken science and developed a philosophy from it, and so this kind of tinge in one's attitude to these things became quite important, at least in my development. Now…

[Q] Whom amongst them… I mean, did you find a philosopher there? I mean, when you say you were intrigued by them – like whom, Sydney?

Well, I did read a… I read… from that year onwards, I spent a lot of time reading philosophy and I still have many of these books, of course. I didn't read Popper until much later, so I read Moritz Schlick's book and what I started to read was what the physicists had had to say about philosophy and in particular I had read… just let me try… I'm trying to recall… yes, Max Born wrote a very interesting book at the time on causality in physics. I'd become introduced through this, you know, to all the problems of quantum mechanics. I read Einstein's more popular books on this, and so that was one of the things that led me on to an interest in these more… these other aspects of science. And… and I had not read – although we had to read as part of this – a little bit of Aristotle and a little bit of Plato, and really study the history of philosophy, and it really was the history of the philosophy of science so it was… we had done that, but that was very much pot-boiling, and I would have thought that what I'd got very interested in was the 20th century and essentially that philosophy which had come out of science. And of course the more political aspects of that had become embedded because of the Marxist influences there, and of course by this time I was… I had become much more politically interested and active in… in South Africa and so that… that turmoil of ideas, which it's hard to describe, that... that one was living through, because you still… the war was still on. And in this remote place which had no connection with anything, there one was trying to, you know, understand the 20th century really. That's what it was, from such a narrow point of view and from this provincial background, with all of this going on all over the world. The…

[Q] Was Gillman provincial?

No, he brought a flavour of something that was… that was more of the centre and more of this developed as this… as this… as I go on.

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: Oxford University, The Social Relations of Science, Marxism, South Africa, Brian Farrell, JG Crowther, Auguste Compte, Karl Popper, Moritz Schlick, Max Born, Albert Einstein, Aristotle, Plato, Joseph Gillman

Duration: 5 minutes, 8 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 24 January 2008