It is hardly possible to list all of Sydney Brenner's accomplishments. Nobel Prize-winning researcher, innovator, visionary — he established C. elegans as a model organism for developmental biology and has contributed in countless ways to our understanding of the genome. Brenner participated in one of the most exciting times in biology and has contributed more to the field than almost any other living researcher.
There have already been several books written about Brenner. So it is unlikely that anyone reading Errol Friedberg's new book, Sydney Brenner: A Biography, would learn anything he might not have already read in other biographies of the man; there are no explosive revelations or skeletons popping out of closets. But what Friedberg's biography does particularly well is go beyond Sydney Brenner, the scientist, to look at Sydney Brenner, the man. Friedberg makes the icon approachable.
While not diminishing Brenner's work in the least, Friedberg also writes about his influence on the larger research community, his ability to shape the scientific conversation, and the way he inspired — and continues to encourage — younger generations of researchers to do groundbreaking work. Instead of plunging straight into an accounting of Brenner as a scientist, Friedberg starts by laying out the influences and events that shaped him as a young man. He seems to take the attitude that the scientific accomplishment is an extension of Brenner as a person, and that there is more to Brenner than scientific accomplishment.
"Brenner possesses a broad intellect that embraces more than a superficial knowledge of the arts and history, and his talent as a raconteur is widely celebrated," Friedberg writes in his preface. "He has dazzled, amused, and offended countless audiences with his wit and ironic humor; his iconoclastic views on ideas related to the exploration of life on this planet (and on planets yet unseen); and his general disdain of authority and dogma." Friedberg makes good use of Brenner's wit, humor, and intellect, at times letting him speak for himself through his work, his letters, and his speeches, rather than putting words into Brenner's mouth.
Friedberg's book is a well-written, engaging account that does justice to its subject — it is not overly flattering nor does it underplay Brenner's many accomplishments. Both those who have read other Brenner biographies and those who don't know anything about him would benefit from giving Friedberg's biography a read.