Under the microscope: Heard the one about...?

A WITTY SCIENTIST, SURELY NOT

The conventional images of scientists do not include wit and laughter. But there are among gifted scientists some notable exceptions, and in this respect Sydney Brenner, a leading molecular biologist, is truly remarkable. He has a passion for words and word play. It is his view that nobody in science, especially students, read anymore - people only Xerox things. He once asked a student who had a big Xerox bill whether the student had tried neuroxing some of the papers. The student asked what he meant by neuroxing. Brenner replied "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." It is much better than Xeroxing since most people copy things on the grounds that they can read it later. He likes the idea of a journal that contained only blank pages and one could then find out how many times it was Xeroxed.

He has now published a collection of the monthly columns that he wrote under the title "Loose Ends" for a scientific journal. For example, a favourite principle in science, indeed one of the very few which guides scientific thinking, is Occam's Razor. This states that when there are conflicting hypotheses or explanations, and that they can both account for the phenomenon, one should 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, he recounts, when there were so few facts that the theories had to be stretched out 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. And 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 "that frequent intruder from the entropic universe".

For the more senior scientist, there is always the problem of not having enough time. So what should one do about invitations to lecture or attend meetings. Brenner thinks that only the young and old enjoy receiving such invitations - the young because they want to be remembered, and the old because they do not want to be forgotten. The solution is a tautological reply "Dear X, I regret I am unable accept your invitation as I find I cannot attend your meeting. Yours sincerely."

Brenner is a close friend of Francis Crick (of DNA fame) who was once interested in the development of the fly. In a moment of frustration he bust 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," comes the reply, "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 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 does encourage sloth, for by proceeding more slowly and having lots of discussions in the coffee room, he avoided lurching into any old experiment just because it could be done, and so they made more rapid progress. But 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 be like an octopus with tentacles everywhere and know everything about everything." He has succeeded to a remarkable extent.

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