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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape