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Forming a territorial army


Archaeology and palaeontology
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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Now, also at that time, another interest had emerged, which threatened effectively to become an alternative profession, but I stopped it. But I'll just tell you a little about it. Raymond Dart had been made famous throughout the world for the discovery of Australopithecus. This was a skull… a fossil skull of what was supposed to be the missing link, and nothing much had… more had been done on that and this was being questioned and so on. And then Robert Broom had found these skulls… although Robert Broom was well known for all his work on reptile palaeontology, but he had started to excavate caves just outside a town called Krugersdorp, called Sterkfontein and Kromdraai. And in our science year we… we decided we would go on expedition to Sterkfontein and… in order to go and try… we went with Broom and, in fact, that was the beginning of mounting more and more expeditions to try and do excavations and so on. So I got led through this to a very deep interest in archaeology and palaeontology and that of course did echo something about one's interest in nature again, and here it had come back the other way and of course this is… this had brought me directly in… into contact with, you know, problems of evolution in this way. So I know that this sounds as if a lot of things were being done at the same time, but that is what it was like. So, you know, Saturday afternoon… or we would go for the weekend to Sterkfontein; we would go and dig in the caves or sort rubble all day; we'd play poker all night. We played poker, which depended on using sheets of toilet paper – scrip – and in fact I… there was this hysterical evening. You know, there was the Sterkfontein skull that everybody knew about, and what happened is at 2.00am one morning, I got what I called the Sterkfontein hand, and this was a royal flush. It's the first and only time I got it – I cleaned them out of their toilet paper scrip, but that's the only thing I ever discovered from this excavation, was the Sterkfontein hand, which was a royal flush in hearts. That I'll never forget. In fact, we woke everybody up at 2.00am to show this great discovery of the Sterkfontein hand, but there you are, so… and then you back to the lab on Monday, you know, do a little bit of neuroanatomy and on Wednesday, do something else. So it was a very sort of, you know, life in which everything was on the go. And one had developed a little coterie of people who were not just interested in, you know, just going to university and qualifying and so 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: Australopithecus, Krugersdorp, Sterkfontein, Kromdraai, Raymond Dart, Robert Broom

Duration: 3 minutes, 40 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 24 January 2008