LBS 333        Topics in the History of Genetics and Molecular Biology    Fall 2000

A Conversation with Jonathan Weiner, author of Time, Love, Memory

       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.

       Q: How did you convince Benzer to let you in on his research and what does he think of the book?

       A: : I still don't know why he decided to talk to me. Normally he brushes off reporters--like flies. But
       we hit it off; we understood each other. Maybe it helped that he and my parents grew up poor in
       Brooklyn; he and my mother lived just a few blocks apart, although they never met. Benzer's a night
       owl, as I say in the book, and on my first visit to Caltech, we ended up sitting up talking about life until
       two or three in the morning.

       Now I think he's worried that the book will bring him too much attention, because what I've written is
       his story as well as a report from the field. The phrase "a great scientist" embarrasses him horribly.
       So he's nervous, but I think he does like the book. When I first showed him the manuscript he sent
       me an e-mail that said, essentially, "I laughed, I cried, I blushed." His daughter Barbie is the
       unofficial family historian, and she loves the book.