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Seymour Benzer

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The power of luck and ignorance
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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Jim has said that he was lucky. He said, 'You need a bit of luck'. Well, you do; everybody can do with luck – luck helps. But it's hard to say. I mean, you know, I've always said for myself that I was lucky to have been born at the right time, to have come to the right place, to have had my background and to have met the right people, you know, at the right time. But of course if it was… if it was somebody else that did that it wouldn't be me so… so it's very hard to… to say what these things are about. And as I believe what you have to do experimentally would be to run it again and remove the luck and see if perhaps, you know, Jim would have turned out to be a second-rate birdwatcher rather than a first-rate molecular biologist. So you can't do this. And I think you could even argue that good luck can make bad scientists good. You know, bad luck can make… bad luck doesn't help anybody but good luck can be the mark of a... of a good scientist. So I think it's that. But it's actually… it's actually what I think is that certain subjects reach a certain stage and what they require is someone come and look at them from a completely different point of view. And I'm a great believer in the power of ignorance. I think you can always know too much. I feel one of the things of being an experienced scientist in a subject is it curtails creativity, because you know too much and you know what won't work. And I think what we should be doing is spreading ignorance rather than knowledge, because it's ignorance that allows you to do things. And so I believe that it is people who come from the outside, who have not been entrained into the standard approach, who can see things from a different way. Those I think are the people who will then make the new step. You see, because Gamow didn't know anything about molecular structure, he couldn't even… but he saw these from the point of view of… of a physicist, of a correspondence, which is what physicists dealed with, and he could pose the problem in a form that no biochemists could pose it, because that's not the way they thought.

South African Sydney Brenner 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: James Watson, George Gamow

Duration: 2 minutes, 52 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 24 January 2008