Sydney Brenner – Iconoclastic Nobel Laureate

Source: NYTimes, Mar 2000

In a career of unquenchable creativity, he has always kept moving, searching for new and different problems to tackle, founding a new field as soon as the old one seemed stale.

A ceaseless flow of ideas, some successful, some less so, is one of Dr. Brenner’s traits. Another is his gift of spellbinding listeners with his latest enthusiasm. He speaks with distinctive English diction and in perfectly constructed sentences that often end with a joke.

”Sydney Brenner is probably the cleverest and most articulate of the founding fathers,” said Dr. Norton Zinder of Rockefeller University, referring to the creators of modern biology. ”He is the most enjoyable company. He overflows with ideas, some of which are occasionally even useful.”

Related Resources:

Wikiquote, date indeterminate

  • A lot of the things that have been accomplished in science have been accomplished on the basis of ignorance … in the sense that you import into the science people from outside. Because once you have an established science, it has got its high priests — the guys who know everything that will work or won’t work. And they don’t want to be bothered. So you have to have a challenge. And the great thing is that young people are ignorant, and we should catch them before they turn into the priesthood. So I think that science should have a much more daring approach.
    Sydney Interview on the Genbank 25th Anniversary

2014 interview in The King’s Review

  • Even God wouldn’t get a grant today because somebody on the committee would say, oh those were very interesting experiments (creating the universe), but they’ve never been repeated. And then someone else would say, yes and he did it a long time ago, what’s he done recently? And a third would say, to top it all, he published it all in an un-refereed journal (The Bible).
  • The way to succeed is to get born at the right time and in the right place. If you can do that then you are bound to succeed. You have to be receptive and have some talent as well.
  • To have seen the development of a subject, which was looked upon with disdain by the establishment from the very start, actually become the basis of our whole approach to biology today. That is something that was worth living for.
  • Cambridge is still unique in that you can get a PhD in a field in which you have no undergraduate training. So I think that structure in Cambridge really needs to be retained, although I see so often that rules are being invented all the time. In America you’ve got to have credits from a large number of courses before you can do a PhD. That’s very good for training a very good average scientific work professional.  But that training doesn’t allow people the kind of room to expand their own creativity. But expanding your own creativity doesn’t suit everybody. For the exceptional students, the ones who can and probably will make a mark, they will still need institutions free from regulation. 
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