Tale fin


A few readers of my last two columns may have suspected that something was afoot. Why, they might ask, does he suddenly produce not one, but two confessions? After shamefacedly exposing his tendency to consider book theft as a way of acquiring knowledge and trying to reverse the hint of plagiarism in his works by suggesting that it was the other way around, we might expect anything. Well, the explanation is quite simple. I wanted to set the record straight, to tidy up all of the loose ends and to have no more false starts. After seven years of labour in the field, 84 columns, I go on to a welldeserved rest. I find it hard to believe, but there must be some graduate students who began reading me when they started research and who have got their PhDs by now. I considered signing off with a farewell letter from Uncle Syd to Willy, but I realised that Willy, who had lived in an accelerated universe, must by now be too old and doddering to need advice. As for Uncle Syd, even he could not find enough momentary clearings in his Alzheimerian haze to give any. Somebody — I think it was John Maddox — once called me the enfant terrible of molecular biology, but that image could not last forever and I was rather pleased that I was able to replace it with Uncle Syd, that wise and wily old bird. I do like the way he spoke with complete authority on matters he knew very little about and I find his emphasis on form rather than exact content a most congenial way to view the world. Uncle Syd could always be relied upon to provide the advice that everybody wants to have and to discover spurious and convincing reasons for avoiding doing all the things he was supposed to do. He knew all the ropes and especially the nooses that can be used to hang someone. Before we take leave of him, I thought you might be interested to hear his pre-Alzheimer views of datamining, an activity that seems to be gripping everybody’s attention. Apparently, he’d gathered, there is so much to glean from existing data that those miners who miss the gold rush can still find a few grains, and even some nuggets, by re-sieving the tailings. This is done by sending software agents to the databases to perform the dirty work, while their masters luxuriate near the pool. Uncle Syd also observed these scavengers hovering around the public databases and the organisations that put data into the public domain, and getting the gold, so to speak, before the race had been run. Some agents, he noticed, convert their findings into cheap trinkets that can be sold to the natives, who are not familiar with the data miners sophisticated approach to science and life. So widespread has data-mining become that Uncle Syd produced a definition of it: what’s my data is mine and what’s your data is also mine. Over the years, I have lamented the disappearance of both thought and experiment from biology and the rise of ‘e-biology’. Something tells me, however, that we will soon see the return of older, better ways. Of course they will be practised in secret to begin with, and some practitioners may be martyred for preaching heresy. But gradually, I predict, these pioneers will come to be recognised and followed. No longer will the man carrying an ice bucket through the corridor in a particular way be keeping his dry martinis cold while he reads his e-mail, or hastens to attend his e-meeting or to send his e-report to his e-voice-mail. If there are people out there who are doing experiments or thinking about their results, let’s get in touch; just write a letter, or if you are nearby, drop in, but do not on any account send an e-mail. When one stops doing a job, one should immediately go and look for another one, if only to provide an excuse for not doing all the mundane things one has promised to attend to after retirement. The weightier the job, the better, to give substance to the sentence beginning ‘Heavy pressure of work...’. I am now concerned not only with what I am going to do next, but with how the journal will replace me. Before readers rush to cancel their subscriptions, they should listen to a suggestion that I am sure the editor will heed. The journal should institute a Personal Services column in which scientists could place ads such as one sees in the literary magazines. For example: Honest, genomic scientist, male (XYY), tall (5’1’’) slim (206lbs), youngish (56), interested in bioassays, high-throughput sequencing and brain surgery, seeks attractive, mature (20), cultured (37°C) microbial geneticist of either, both or no sex, with a view to collaborative grant requests and coauthorship of papers. And here is mine: Elderly, white, male, column writer, seven years experience, selfemployed scientist, explorer, adventurer, inventor and entrepreneur seeks young, naïve, preferably female editor of newly formed scientific journal with a view to obtaining unrefereed access to as wide an audience as possible. Has good title for a column: ‘The Welldeserved Rest.’ Please write, quoting circulation and impact factor. R885

DOI: 10.1016/S0960-9822(00)00853-8

Cite this paper

@article{Brenner2000TaleF, title={Tale fin}, author={Sydney Brenner}, journal={Current Biology}, year={2000}, volume={10} }