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Being a heretic got me to Cold Spring Harbor


Scientific interaction with Francis Crick
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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[Q] What about Francis now, and his creativity? Do you see Francis as the dominant figure at this time?

Yes, I think that Francis had… has always had the ability to crystallise the questions in a remarkable… in a remarkable way. That is, he has formulated… and I of course, I have spent in later life, I spent 20 years sharing an office, I had many, many conversations with him. There were always two things that I think were important about our conversations was never restrain yourself; say it, even if it is completely stupid and ridiculous and wrong, because just uttering it gets it out into the open. And someone else will pick up something from it. And I think the people who will not say anything until they've got it fully worked out, and there are people like this, these are people who don't have what I consider to be the most important thrill about doing… science is the kind of social interaction, the kind of companionship that comes from two people's minds playing on each other. And I think that that's the most important thing: say it, even if it is stupid. And the second thing is… which is important, is that, at least in… in… for myself, in… in such… in such thing, is always try… I've always tried to materialise the question in the form of: well, if it is like this, how would you go about doing anything about it? So I've always tried to think of some experiment or... or somewhere where... where might get... one get hold of the information to test this. And Francis has always had that kind of… at least we've always had that interaction of this, and of course he is a very severe audience; you don't get away with things, you have to… you have to be thinking all the time, because he asks very penetrating questions. So that I think is the clarification that comes from that… is I think very important in… in scientific interaction. And I think also you know, the sort of seminars that we had, but mostly I think it had been, not formal seminars and formal listening, but just this… that if you form a theory like this – I mean, we spent days, weeks, discussing nonsense. I mean, what had we… what was nonsense? I mean, it's various forms – all kinds of nonsense – there's gibberish, there's nonsense and so on. But to try and formulate what did you mean by non-sense in the genetic code. And it took us a long time to come clear that there was some nonsense that was functional. Just say that that is… that is all trying to materialise it in that way. Although I think Francis had a brilliant… a brilliant picture of space; I mean, visualisation of… of molecular structure. And I think is someone who thinks geometrically like I do. You can divide people into geometers and algebraists. That is, people who sit down and write axioms and then proceed to deduce the answer. I can't do that. I can only think in terms of little diagrams. And Francis is very good at that as well, little… little pictures and little diagrams of how things might interact. In fact, I think a lot of people get their... generate their conceptions in the form of little pictures, even though later they may come and form… formulate them.

And, of course, one of the other things that I learnt through these interactions was to get the scale of everything right. It's very important; this is not… this is not done. You know, and you can tell by the drawings. For example, you know, very early on we realised that the amount of DNA in a bacterium is 1 metre long. And it's in a bacterium… I'm sorry, it's not 1 metre, it's 1mm. And it's in a bacterium that's 1μ. So the DNA has been folded up a thousand times. And the pictures that you see of a bacterium with a little circle in it are ridiculous. Furthermore, when you think that most of the bacterium is full of these ribosomes and that the correct picture is not that ribosomes move along the messenger, but the messengers, because the ribosomes are big… their diffusion is quite slow. But the messengers must be moving through the cell like a lot of… like a lot of hysterical snakes, threading their way through the ribosomes like this. And… and I've always thought of it as very good to try to get that picture over. I feel there's not enough done about this; people don't teach them some scales of anything and how molecules reach things and so on. And Francis… that's one of the things that we tried very hard to do: was to stay imprisoned within the physical context of everything.

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: Francis Crick

Duration: 6 minutes, 4 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 24 January 2008