Sydney Brenner: A revolutionary biologist. New BBC radio programme

by Matthew Cobb

Earlier this year I went to Singapore to record a series of interviews with Sydney Brenner, one of the greatest biologists of the 20th century. This was part of a Sydney Brenner Research Fellowship from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, which I was awarded to study how Brenner and Francis Crick collaborated. I went with ace BBC radio producer Andrew Luck-Baker, and our 30 minute radio programme was broadcast last night on the BBC World Service. It is now available to listen to (or download), for free, from anywhere in the world.

Click on this image to listen. It’s fascinating, featuring archive material from Brenner, Crick and Jim Watson, as well as our Singapore interviews. Listen to how Sydney’s voice has changed down the decades! And above all, hear how Brenner suddenly realised that there must be a key component of how genes work, now known as messenger RNA, and how he and the French geneticist François Jacob figured out how to test his hunch.


The ‘revolutionary biologist’ of the subtitle is not only a reference to his role in changing biology in the 20th century, but also to his politics – he was very involved in left-wing politics in South Africa before and after the Second World War. Sadly, that didn’t make it into the final cut…


JAC note: Evolutionary biologist and writer Steve Jones also has a new show on the BBC, “Language and our genes,” which you can download or listen to here. Like Matthew’s show, it’s 28 minutes long. (h/t: Kevin)



  1. Merilee
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    Heard him speak at McMaster University ( Hamilton, Ontario) about 10 years ago, He was spell-binding.
    Looking forward to listening to this!

  2. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    “Programme,” really? We had a revolution on this side of the pond so we wouldn’t hafta spell words funny like that.

    • Posted October 24, 2017 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      Yes but Matthew is a Brit and wrote this post.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted October 24, 2017 at 10:10 am | Permalink

        Yeah, I understand they spell words funny all over not-America.

        • Kevin
          Posted October 24, 2017 at 11:26 am | Permalink

          Yes I understand that there’s not-America and sut-America and the two had the War of Succession which was caused by the Boston Tea Party. Is that the revolution that you are talking about?

        • nicky
          Posted October 24, 2017 at 1:27 pm | Permalink


        • Heather Hastie
          Posted October 24, 2017 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

          Actually, it’s the US that spells them funny. The rest of us spell them properly.

  3. Randall Schenck
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Very interesting and exciting at the same time. To get the words from the person who did the work and the discoveries as if it were yesterday.

  4. Posted October 24, 2017 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Thanks for doing these interviews, Matthew! Brenner is such an interesting and brilliant scientist. He’s long been an inspiration of mine. Your interview is absolutely great. It’s wonderful to have his thoughts captured so nicely and your backstory and explanations of his work put everything in context.

  5. Paul S
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Hadn’t planned on listening because I thought it would be well over my head. That would have been a poor decision on my part.
    A wonderful interview.

  6. Liz
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    “One reason for their success was that they were part of a small informal network set up by a physicist in the United States called George Gamow which enabled them to discuss informally, exploring half-formed or even foolish ideas.”

    I enjoyed listening to this very much. It was interesting and informative. Thank you.

  7. Posted October 24, 2017 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Nice to have more of the gaps of “where did we learn this?” filled in.

  8. Posted October 24, 2017 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Are you planning to write about his political views some time in the future?

  9. Nell Whiteside
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this brilliant interview.

    At ~90 ears of age Brenner continues to be amazing. I enjoyed his comment that there is nothing, nothing, more exciting than a successful scientific experiment and there was the time when he and Crick were the only ones who knew that the genetic code is a triplet code. That sent shivers down my spine. Wonderful!

  10. Edward Makhene
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    This great man lectured to my class in medical school (Johannesburg). We all admired his intelligence.
    His achievements were to be expected.
    Cheers Syd.

  11. Paul Davies
    Posted October 25, 2017 at 12:08 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the links, I will listen with interest. Can I also, without subverting the topic of the thread, bang the drum for the BBC and their continued support for science and education? They may have their flaws, but these days they come under constant attack for bias (or ‘including opinions I may not agree with’ as it is also known) – mostly from the Left, who for some reason are intent on found Murdoch’s dirty work for him. They deserve more support.

  12. Aaron Stewart
    Posted October 29, 2017 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Wondering if it’s possible to get a transcript of this?

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