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Cambridge or Oxford?


Experiments: really finding things out
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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Of course during this period every one of one's colleagues has always said that the book that influenced them most is What Is Life. A little book written by Erwin Schrödinger, which... you know, which people say: 'Were it not for Schrödinger, I would be playing the violin and collecting money on a… in an underground station in... in the tube'. And I actually read this book myself and in fact I have a copy here which you can see was bought in 1944, so I'd read this at a very early stage and I must say that I don't recall getting anything out of it in terms of what other people claim to have got, namely that it introduced them to the concept of the gene as a molecule and so on. I remember reading it as, as very interesting, of course I knew all about genes and chromosomes and this stuff seemed to me to be a bit amateur. I didn't understand the... the entropy part of the argument but in fact I have an inscription in my book which is a quotation from Faraday and, which said… says something and must be my... my impression of it at the time, and it says here, 'Let the imagination go, guarding it by judgement and principle, but holding it in and directing it by experiment'. So that is just the evidence it says… well, it's a great story but you know where are the experiments to tell you that it's true? And I think that that – which is written there, at the time – just says what… what this influenced me, and I think it's been very important, at least in my approach, which is that you've got to really find out. The difference between having a correct theory and a true theory… that is, a theory which reflects reality – you've got to go and actually go back to nature, and that's what this is saying.

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: 1944, What is Life, Erwin Schrödinger, Michael Faraday

Duration: 2 minutes, 29 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 24 January 2008