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Work on phage with Hinshelwood in Oxford


Biology doesn't allow for relaxing baths
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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The trouble with theory in biology is it's not like that in physics, there's no way you can use it. You see… I mean, Leó Szilárd used to tell me that the one thing that happened when he went into biology is he couldn't take a nice bath. When he was a physicist, he could go into a bath and he could lie there for three hours and he could think about physics, but he said when he went into biology, no sooner did he get in the bath then he'd have to get out and look up another fact. So he was always unable then to take a... a relaxed bath, and I think that is the nature, because you have to ask yourself, who... you know, what had this all been about, because this is one of those remarkable things in biology that is, you know, absolutely true, yet absolutely vacuous. There's nothing you can do about it. I mean, it tells you how things might work; it doesn't tell you how you can make a mouse. That's in the end… we're always preoccupied with these questions of detail. So that's… but I think, you know, having had this connection with this kind of thinking, having, you know, tried to teach myself enough mathematics at least to be able to deal with a mathematical argument, but I think, you know, the thing that I've always realised I'm much better at is actually, you know, doing the real thing in a lab.

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: Leó Szilárd

Duration: 1 minute, 37 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 24 January 2008