Thursday, August 19, 2010

Biology Pioneers Sydney Brenner and John Maynard Smith on Science Fiction

The "Web of Stories" is an oral history video project,where "remarkable people" tell stories about their lives. So far the list of remarkable people seem to be heavily dominated by scientists, some who talk about how their lives were influenced by science fiction.

Sydney Brenner is one of the giants of molecular biology.  Beginning in the 1950s his work with Francis Crick and Leslie Barnett helped decipher how a nucleic acid sequence is translated into the amino acid sequence of a protein. Later he worked to establish the nematode C. elegans as an experimental model organism for studying the genetics of cellular differentiation and organ development. This Nobel Prize-winning work has lead to better understanding of the biological mechanisms of aging and nervous system development.

From the transcript of Brenner's Web of Stories video on science fiction:
[...] I would go to this second-hand bookstore where this person had past numbers of something called Amazing Stories which you could buy for about tuppence each. These were the pulp magazines, there were two of them which were the best; one was called "Amazing Stories", other called "Astounding Stories". [... ] In fact, this stood me very well in later years, when Francis Crick wrote a paper on the idea of Pangenesis, namely that all life- Panspermia, I'm sorry- that all life had been brought here from outer space and the planet seeded. I told him that I'd read this somewhere before and he said that was very interesting, could I give him the reference. I thought, well, I can't remember the exact number, but it was "Amazing Stories", either 1936 or 1937, I'm sure you could find it there, it's been published before and he should be careful, you know, not to be accused of plagiarism. [...]
Panspermia has been a pretty common theme in science fiction since its early days, but I haven't been able to figure out which specific story Brenner might be referring to. (Any suggestions?)

Watch the video of Sydney Brenner for more of his reminiscences about science fiction, including Damon Knight's story "To Serve Man" and The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth.

Also reminiscing about science fiction is John Maynard Smith.  Maynard Smith was a British geneticist and theoretical evolutionary biologist who is best known for applying game theory to evolution and his theories on the evolution of sex.

From the transcript of John Maynard's Smith Web of Stories video on science fiction:
I read Wells, I read a man called Stapledon, who people don't read nowadays, wrote an extraordinary book called 'Last and First Men', in about 1932 or something, which has an atom bomb, it has a- the oil crisis destroying civilisation, it has giant brains, it has the breeding of new human beings who will be able to build civilisation and so on. And I remember reading this book and getting fascinated by genetics, because it was full of the idea of how do you change human nature by genetic means. And I guess, ultimately, that's why I became a geneticist.

You'll have to watch the whole video for the "twist" to Smith's story.


There are some other great SF-related clips (and lots of science history) at Web of Stories - for example Freeman Dyson talking about how the idea of the "Dyson sphere" was "hijacked" by science fiction. Check it out!

(Web of Stories via Amy Charles at Lablit.com, whose review of the site I largely agree with)

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