Posts Tagged ‘Seymour Benzer’

Which brain needs examination?

February 12, 2008

Tell me, Dotty, if Seymour’s going to examine the brain of a fly, don’t you think we should have his brain examined?

That is Seymour Benzer’s mother to his wife, as quoted by Benzer himself–from this obituary of Seymour Benzer by William Harris at PLOS biology; via Coturnix. Take a look!

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Time, love, memory

December 9, 2007

Till recently, I have not heard about Jonathan Weiner’s Time, Love, Memory (though, it seems to have been mentioned at Pharyngula). Then, while reading one of the obituaries of Seymour Benzer, I learnt about the book (and, it came with strong recommendations). I managed to check the book out from the library and read it in the last few days. It is a great book, and I am glad I got to read it.

One of the things that struck me while reading the book is how different doing science (at least, some disciplines of biology) seems to have been in the early and middle parts of 20th century as compared to today; for example, in p. 51 of the book, Weiner reproduces a figure from one of the classic papers, the caption of which, in part, reads:

This illustration comes from one of the historic papers in which Benzer reported the results of the experiment. Benzer’s caption: :The artist, Martha Jane Benzer, who graciously signed the drawing, was five years old at the time.”

It seems that such personal touch (not to mention the attitude of not taking oneself too seriously) seems to be missing in the literature today. A few pages later, I found a quote by a biologist about the non-competitiveness that prevailed in those early days, which reinforces my impression:

He spent all summer at Cold Spring Harbor talking about the rII idea. I could have stolen it. I could have gone into my lab and done it myself. We didn’t do that in those days.

It is a very frank admission too; and, there are more such passages in the book which capture the science, as it is and was practiced, which makes reading the book a real pleasure; for example, take a look at this interesting thought about top-down and bottoms-up approaches to science, and their interconnectedness:

Luria said something that seemed to him to be extremely important, although Benzer could not follow it at the time. “He said, ‘Everyone keeps going down, down, down, trying to be more reductionist, trying to see finer and finer, to find the basis of structure and function.’ And he said, ‘I think it’s time start going up again–going in the opposite direction.’

“So I was interested in that,” Benzer says now. “But of course it took a long time before I–it takes a long time of going down before you start looking to go up again. Down is much easier way to go.”

Even though the field in general had become too competitive and more business like, Benzer seems to have continued to be a maverick in his attitudes. Apparently, when his colleagues became administrators, here is how Benzer confronted them:

As Benzer’s friends succumbed one by one, Benzer presented each of them with a copy of little handbook called Microcosmographia Academica: Being a guide for the young academic politician. The pamphlet (“the merest sketch of the little world that now lies before you,” the preface explains) teaches the skills that Benzer’s former labmates would not need to learn, including propaganda, “that branch of the art of lying which consists in very nearly deceiving your friends without quite deceiving your enemies.”

Here is an online version of Microcosmographia, in case you are interested.

There are also some passages which read like a description from some post-modern novel, like this one about Benzer’s visit to a roadside astrologer in India:

Benzer went to a meeting in India. Wandering in the street markets looking for exotica–he had acquired a taste for strange foods as well as strange hours–Benzer saw a soothsayer with a bird. Passersby would ask the soothsayer a question. Then the man would ask the bird. The bird would go into the cage, peck among the scraps on the floor, and bring out an answer. Benzer asked, “Is the genetic code universal?” The bird gave the answer “The news from home is good.”

I am wondering if the conference happened in Bangalore (and, if it is in Malleshwaram that Benzer met the soothsayer).

On the whole, a fine book, which, I have no hesitations recommending (and, reading which would make a nice tribute to Benzer too). Happy reading!

Seymour Benzer: RIP

December 2, 2007

Bora calls him one of the greatest biologists of 20th century (and, links to other tributes as well as to a paper and a video of his). From one of the links that Wiki provides I understand that he belongs to that group of physicists who turned to biology under the influence of Schroedinger’s What is life. Another link that Wiki provides is to an interview with Jonathan Weiner, and here is the first question and answer:

Q: You call Seymour Benzer “one of the unsung heroes of our time.” How has this man (responsible for such a big and important series of experiments in biology) managed to stay virtually unknown while names like Watson and Crick have become instantly recognizable?

A: There’s no question that Benzer is one of the great scientists of the century, and it’s surprising that outside of his own field, no one knows his name. I should say, outside his fields, because he’s a maverick scientist who keeps jumping around. His work as a physicist in the 1940s helped start the revolution in electronics, which of course is the single biggest industry in the U.S. today. His work as a biologist in the ’50s helped start the revolution called molecular biology, which is probably the most exciting and fast-moving field in science today. Benzer helped start that revolution by making the first detailed map of the interior of a gene. And a study he started in the ’60s is now central to the study of genes and behavior, which may be one of the most exciting and disturbing scientific fields in the twenty-first century. More than anyone else, Benzer started the effort to trace the actual, physical links from gene to behavior–he called it the genetic dissection of behavior.

Why isn’t he better known? Because he doesn’t want to be. Unlike most of his friends, he’s never written his memoirs, never written a book, hates to talk to reporters. He says he’s too busy. He has too much fun in the lab.

In the light of the above question and answer, I guess, it is no wonder that I have not heard of him till today. Any case, from the interview, I see that Weiner’s book Time, Love, Memory is about Benzer and his work. May be I will get that book sometime and read it.