Octopus with tentacles everywhere

Loose Ends from Current Biology
February 20, 1998

Sydney Brenner is one of the world's leading molecular biologists. He has won almost every important prize except the Nobel and many feel that that is an injustice. But he is also known for his verbal wit and love of words. He sees his end in Schloss Alzheimer and wishes to found BISCUIT - Bank of International Scientific Capital and Unpublished Information and Techniques - that will lend ideas for research. So it is a pleasure to find the columns he has been writing in a leading biological journal collected into a slim volume. It is full of wise, scurrilous, and wicked advice and comments on the nature of science and its practitioners. Much of it is based on his own experiences and so is sometimes going to be a bit too technical for the non-biologist; for example, the highly imaginative pieces on molecular biology by numbers.

He discusses a principle in science that often influences scientific thinking - Occam's Razor. This states that when there are conflicting hypotheses or explanations that can both account for the phenomena one must always choose the simplest. Often in the history of molecular biology neither the simplest nor the most elegant theory turned out to be right. There were times, Brenner recounts, when there were so few facts that the theories had to be stretched to encompass them all. On some of these occasions he found that people were applying not Occam's Razor but what he called Occam's Broom, which was used to sweep under the carpet any unpalatable facts that did not support the hypothesis. He advises young scientists not to be impressed with an experimental result that does not accord with the rest as it is probably due to a dirty test tube.

He says nobody in science, especially students, reads any more - people only Xerox things. He once asked a student who had a big Xerox bill whether the student had tried neuroxing papers. The student asked what he meant by "neuroxing". Brenner replied:J"It's a very easy and cheap process. You hold the page in front of your eyes and let it go through them into the brain." He is militantly against the managerial takeover of science. If business practices come into science he imagines leveraged buy-outs of universities financed by junk bonds and peer review replaced by market surveys. But heads of laboratories could pay themselves huge bonuses for publication in prestigious journals.

Brenner is a close friend of Francis Crick (of DNA fame), who once was interested in the development of the fly. In a moment of frustration he burst out: "God knows how this works" and in a flash Brenner had this image of Crick arriving in heaven with his question and finally getting to meet God who looks like a little man in overalls with a spanner in his pocket. "How do insects develop?" asks Crick. "Well, We took a little bit of this stuff and we added some things to it and ... actually we don't know, but I can tell you that we've been building flies up here for 200 million years and we have had no complaints."

Among the seven deadly sins that scientists are guilty of, he himself suffers from envy. "I am extremely envious of Darwin, but it is impossible to begrudge him his success and demand that he should have waited a century or so to allow me a fair chance to compete with him."

But he encourages sloth for, by proceeding more slowly and having lots of discussion over coffee, he claims he avoided lurching into any old experiment and so made more rapid progress. He may also suffer from avarice. "I went into science because I was greedy because I had an insatiable hunger for knowledge. Not for me the fox who knows a little about many things nor the hedgehog who knows a lot about one thing ... I wanted it to be like an octopus with tentacles everywhere and know everything about everything." He has succeeded to a remarkable extent.

Lewis Wolpert is professor of biology as applied to medicine, University College London.

Loose Ends from Current Biology

Author - Sydney Brenner
ISBN - 1 85922 325 7
Publisher - Current Biology
Price - £12.50
Pages - 123

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