Seymour Benzer (part 1)

I found a long interview with Seymour Benzer, a biologist at Caltech, who is one of my favorite scientists — lots of creative and important work. I was pleased to learn he is a foodie. During a 1956 trip to Japan he had sushi for the first time. “One of the greatest things about the trip,” he said in 1990 (when the interview took place), presaging a future in which every upscale American supermarket sells sushi. (For dinner tonight I made salmon tartare.) When I was a student at Caltech I knew the other students liked him, but I never met him.

Benzer began the use of fruit flies to study behavior. At Woods Hole I took a course called Neural Systems and Behavior with a fruit-fly segment taught by Laurie Tompkins. She had met Benzer at a party. When she told him she studied fruit-fly mating, Benzer asked if they have orgasms. Very early in his work on behavior, he gave a talk to Roger Sperry’s lab about his plans. After his talk there was a lot of debate about it. Some people thought it was very promising; others thought it was nonsense.

Interviewer: Why were people so skeptical?

Benzer: Why? A lack of imagination.

Excellent answer. I would have said: People are always skeptical.

3 Replies to “Seymour Benzer (part 1)”

  1. Interviewer: Why were people so skeptical?

    Benzer: Why? A lack of imagination.

    Excellent answer. I would have said: People are always skeptical.

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    Probably because they’ve never tried sushi. All things being relative, that is. (“They” being “the typical audience for a talk by scientists to other scientists.”)

    P.S. Does Benzer need any more fruit flies? I’ve got a nice colony started on some bananas :^D

    P.P.S. To Benzer’s thought processes, one might liken the following 3 haiku (excepting the pond & over-matured sushi, which could be “they,” perhaps…

    old pond
    a frog jumps in
    sound of water

    Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)
    Translation

    At the over-matured sushi,
    The Master
    Is full of regret.

    Yosa Buson (1716-1784)
    Translation

    I eat alone
    & pass the salt
    for myself

    Michael McClintock (1950-Present)
    “Man With No Face”

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