Sidney Brenner: “Only Joking”

In earlier postings 1, 2, we separately encountered Sidney Brenner and Max Delbruck, each of whom possessed a singularly strong personality.  Now, we encounter them together in a short anecdote, in which Brenner defines the “perfect practical joke” and proffers an example. The victim is Max Delbruck.

We glimpsed Sidney Brenner’s mischievous sense of humor in The Phage in the Letter. The current tale begins now with his comment: “I have always wanted to invent the perfect practical joke.” Acknowledging that practical jokes can often be cruel, Brenner tells us that his criteria for the perfect practical joke are that it “should have an economy and convey enough of the conjurer’s art so that nobody is totally dismayed.” 3

Perhaps to ease any guilt he might have felt over the episode recounted here, Brenner hastens to tell us that Max Delbruck, the victim, was himself a great player of practical jokes. And, apropos this particular tale, he also tells us that Delbruck liked to arrange for people to attend lectures for the purpose of embarrassing them there.

Brenner saw the opportunity to turn the tables on Delbruck when he (Brenner) was invited to give a talk at Caltech. Upon accepting, Brenner informed friends at Caltech that he preferred speaking to a small group. However, Brenner deliberately kept this slight detail from Delbruck. As the story then unfolds, when Brenner arrived to give his talk, he was escorted to Delbruck’s office, where a small group of his friends were waiting. They next proceeded to a small seminar room, presumably because his friends had adhered to his request. A few other colleagues were waiting there and, without further ado, Brenner launched into his talk.

Sydney Brenner in 1962
Sydney Brenner in 1962

Bearing in mind Brenner’s stature and, consequently, the large turnout expected for his lecture, Delbruck was understandably confused by what was transpiring. So, he got up and left the room to check the notice board to see what room had been reserved for Brenner’s talk. Through a crack in the door, Brenner could witness Delbruck’s bewilderment. A large lecture hall indeed had been reserved for Brenner’s lecture, and some 300 listeners were already seated there waiting to hear it.

Brenner describes what then transpired in the small room, as follows: “Seizing the opportunity, I immediately increased speed, took off my jacket and began to settle in for a full hour. Max returned, puzzled by what he should do next; the looks of dismay had turned to panic and people had started to signal to each other.” Well, Brenner was eventually stopped and the small group proceeded to the large lecture room, where “Max merely signaled me to talk with a limp wave and no introduction….This was perfection, as some people knew that I knew, but Max did not.”

1. The Phage in the Letter

2. Max Delbruck, Lise Meitner, Niels Bohr, and the Nazis

3. Brenner, S., Only Joking, Current Biology 8: R825, 1998.


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