Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Musings on a 'Gotcha-Gotcha' Thread from a Sydney Brenner Story

by Sachi Sri Kantha

Now, suppose Brenner’s protagonist went on stage in Colombo and performed his act, what would have happened? My guess would be the same as yours.

If there is a vote for the superstar among contemporary scientists, the South Africa-born Sydney Brenner would rank in the top three. Born on January 13, 1927, Brenner was a co-Nobelist for the 2002 Medicine prize. His record in science is exemplary. But what distinguishes him from other top rated scientists and other science Nobelists is that he is also a superb writer and story teller who can make non-scientists laugh at the foibles of scientists, politicians and diplomats. I have had the good fortune to listen to two Sydney Brenner lectures, one in Melbourne (in 2003) and the second one in Tokyo (in 2004). In the latter lecture, he brought down the House with an off-handed quip that ‘One good idea is better than a hundred Power Point decorations.’

First, I present a typical Sydney Brenner story (as told by the Master himself) and provide my thread to his story as he has suggested. Here is the story, as it appeared in the Current Biology journal, (July 1996, p.906). Note, gedanken is the German word for ‘thought experiment.’

“I have formulated a gedanken experiment which can be transformed into a real one at any time we can get funding for the research. The leading actor is a very important scientist – perhaps a Nobel laureate – who gives a lecture to a scientific audience in different countries. In the middle of the lecture he removes his trousers and continues to the end. The question is, how does the audience respond? Here are some conjectures.

In England: it will be totally ignored. Some may privately note that it is a useful way to emphasize a point in a lecture and may put it to future use.

In France: after a short while, a man dressed in uniform will enter and ask the lecturer to leave.

In Germany: the entire audience rises and takes off their trousers (or equivalents).

In Italy: after a few seconds the lecturer realizes that his trousers have been stolen.

In America: a few minutes pass followed by the statement of the obvious ‘Hey man, he’s taken off his pants!’

In Japan: no reaction but after the lecture someone will come up to the lecturer and say ‘Ah, very good. But only in Kyushu they take off trousers in that style. Here, in Kyoto, we do it this way.’

The response in other countries is left to the reader.

Actually, like all good theories, this one is based on a preliminary experiment. Years ago when I visited Japan, I discovered the useful word ‘gotcha-gotcha’, which means mess, anarchy or chaos, among other things. In a lecture in Kyoto, I introduced it to describe one of my slides. The audience did not stir but at the end of the lecture, someone came up to me and said, ‘Ah, very good. But only in Kyushu do they say gotcha-gotcha in that way. Here, in Kyoto, we say…’”

Now, suppose Brenner’s protagonist went on stage in Colombo and performed his act, what would have happened? My guess would be the same as yours.

Immediately after the lecture, a Government communique would blare ‘The LTTE terrorised the distinguished Nobelist to drop his pants, in front of Buddhist Bhikkus who were listening attentively. The American ambassador, Jeffrey J. Lunstead, when asked for comments, cautioned that ‘Americans cannot ignore such high-handed threats for democracy.’

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