The Nobel Prize in Medicine has just been awarded to Sydney Brenner, a gesture which delights many of us, but which is long overdue. Not only is he one of the cleverest people I have met, he is also a remarkable personality with a flair for words and wit. I am also conscious of how he supported me, when he found me in despair after everyone at a meeting had thought I was wrong.
Brenner was born in Germiston, outside Johannesburg, and his father, a cobbler, was an immigrant who could neither read nor write but had a great aptitude for languages. Sydney was not successful at school (which led him to conclude that if any student came to him with a first-class degree, he would have to prove that he could have had a second-class degree if he had tried), yet after furthering his education at the public library, he entered medical school at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, at the age of 14. He was not always an easy student, and was thrown out of a chemistry class for telling the lecturer he was wrong. He was also politically active: as president of the Student Representative Council, he defeated the more conservative members and led a student march against apartheid into the city.
His time in Oxford and the USA resulted in meetings with molecular biologists such as Seymour Benzer and Francis Crick. He ended up in the new Medical Research laboratory in Cambridge, sharing, with Crick, an office with "Reading rots the mind" written on the wall. When he saw the model for the structure of DNA, it was for him remarkable - he saw the problem of the genetic code, and how biology could be reduced to the DNA chain. For 20 years, he and Crick had a rule that they could say whatever came into their head - with no shame about being wrong. Most of their conversations led nowhere, but good things did come from those sessions. They made fundamental contributions to solving the genetic code; how the sequence of units in one DNA strand provides the codes for the chains of amino acids in proteins. It is proteins that provide the basis for the life of the cell.
To be creative, for Brenner, requires one to know an area well but not too well, in case one gets trapped in the current thinking; it is, however, invaluable to know a lot about related fields. …