John Sulston interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 16th September 2008

0:09:07 Born in Fulmer, Buckinghamshire, in 1942; during the War we lived at Chesham Bois with my grandmother; father was an Anglican priest and was away in Africa; my mother had been a teacher before my birth; I have had a very particular relationship with my father in the sense that I have diverged totally from him; I was brought up as an Anglican, was a server in the church, and really tried hard to be a believer; it was an important part of our relationship and he was anxious to pass on his philosophy to me; he might well have become an academic but chose to go into the church and he expected me to do well; my memory of our relationship (he died in 1986) is completely coloured by the later part when I had to break away from him; in my teenage years I became agnostic, and before long, atheist, in the Cambridge way - rationalist, humanist, atheism is where I have ended up; he found it distressing that I took this course; when I came up to Cambridge I remember discussing religion with fellow students and found that very few understood how important it was to me to be or not to be religious; for me it was the only thing that mattered, a lesson in how one's own experience colours one's priorities; my father was a middle to high Anglican; he was assistant priest in the local parish at weekends, but during the week worked in London as a secretary at the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel which later merged with the Church Missionary Society; he had little experience himself of missionary work though he did visit mission stations that they ran

4:41:23 Agree with Richard Dawkin's view that the Education Officer of the Royal Society should not be a clergyman; think the appointment of Michael Reiss was ill-advised; it is such a particular position in this age, especially given the situation in America, with the belief in creationism rising in this country; how  we deal with that is unclear; Michael Reiss is trying to damp it, but my reasoning on what is going on in America, and the way that the intelligent design people behave, is that you have to make your opposition rather clearer than he is doing; if someone says that two and two make five you have to say clearly that they don't; I think the fairy stories that all religions wrap round the fact of evolution are wrong so oppose Michael Reiss's tolerance of them, especially as Education Officer; if he were a Fellow it would be alright, but as an Officer he would have to be careful; Martin Rees is a very spiritual man but you don't find him speaking in this fashion; he describes himself as an unbelieving Anglican and this resonates to me as I spent my teenage years in that form; it is a matter of respecting the institution whilst not accepting all its tenets; think it is a tragedy that Anglicanism is declining in this country and that various evangelical sects are becoming more powerful; Anglicanism is one of the great secular religions, and always has been since the Reformation; I would not act as spiritual as Martin does in his statements as I find this conflicting; Tim Hunt has said that whilst in biology we are dealing with very clear facts, cosmologists are touching the void; it drives some of them a little mad and makes others a little spiritual; they are touching things way beyond our comprehension, much more than biology, so you can understand the difference in attitude; I have refused to have this conversation with all the newspapers as I feel it is an internal matter for the Royal Society

11:44:14 Atheism is my position for my lifetime and I also label myself as a Humanist, which does provide the framework to live one's life honestly, morally and joyfully; if you have nothing you have no comfort; Humanism gives me comfort in the knowledge that I have a finite existence, I have very good reasons for acting in a moral fashion and feeling that my life is worthwhile as there will be other lives after it; that is my present framework - I see that we have enormous amounts to discover as a strategy for going forward as human beings; I believe atheism makes coherent sense; all the religions are in conflict with each other; they have different stories, based on insubstantial records, but justify them with saying that there was some direct communication with a deity in the past which has led them to this belief; I find those unconvincing, particularly because of the conflict; this was my main argument in discussions with my father; talking recently on the good that science can bring and the extraordinary advance and enlightenment that has occurred as a result of our discovery process; recent landmarks include the cosmological revolution, the Darwinian revolution, the discoveries of fundamental physics, which completely change the world view of humanity; I look at that story and say this is the way we should be going forward, these are the exciting things that have happened; science has had to fight established religions of all kinds in order to get them accepted and tolerated, and we are still fighting for the Darwinian one; consequently, I think that atheism is a terrific strategy both for me personally, and for humanity

15:29:16 I am Chair of a new institute at Manchester on ethics and science; the University has a strategy of recruiting existing Nobel prize winners part-time, frankly to bolster their position academically; my particular sphere involves the fulltime Director, John Harris, who is a bioethicist; he holds views on the enhancement of humanity which I partly accept; this is a good partnership; we have the opportunity for expansion though there is an existing group of philosophers and lawyers but I want to expand into social and policy areas; my counterpart there in Economics is Joseph Stiglitz, a humanist economist, and we have a great opportunity to do things together; he has a counterpart called the Brooks World Poverty Institute; I am really looking forward to these collaborations; see it as a platform by which, even in my part-time position, I can have some bearing on research, and maybe influence in policy matters which I think is important

17:50:03 Richard Dawkin is deliberately setting himself against the intelligent design crowd who have seized on the idea that the theory of evolution is uncertain; the fact is that creationism and all other religious doctrines are also theories but they are alleged to be facts; this is purely terminology as I see it; if we find that people are treating our theories, which are actually extremely substantial, as just theories, and their own very insubstantial theories as facts, one has to adjust the terminology; I have not thought enough about how one does that, but I ought to

19:54:18 Did a tiny amount of reading on other religions when I was a student, and did find a certain attraction to Buddhism; in the end I find it insubstantial compared with the extraordinary discoveries we have made by rational scientific approaches; I could come back to it; my atheism is provisional but don't see the comfort and inspiration of the humanist version running out before the end of my lifetime; the only sense in which I would be strongly evangelical is the responsibility to conduct rational policies that do not endanger the future of humanity; despite speculations, we have no shred of evidence that any other life form exists, certainly no intelligent life form; I think we should treat ourselves collectively as very precious; I am extremely opposed to those evangelical philosophies or policies attributed to the Bush administration who use religion, in some degree, as a cloak for very aggressive and dangerous practices in world policy

22:46:09 My mother was my confidant and my rock as I was growing up; I could come home from school and talk; she had been a teacher of English at Watford Grammar School for Girls; throughout the time I was losing my links with my father over religion, my mother was always the neutral party; although she clearly was a believer and strongly supported my father she never indicated to me that she thought I was going off the rails as he did; she was the go-between; the most extraordinary event was that after her death, among her possessions was a letter to me saying how sad she was that I had lost my faith and her hope that one day I would regain it; it shocked me, it was a second bereavement, as here was this person who I had thought of as being at the unbelieving end of Anglicanism, and I had disappointed her; I have a sister who is four years younger; we never had a strong relationship but a happy childhood; we laugh rather bitterly now that I, as the boy, was sent to fee-paying private schools and she was sent to state schools; I did get scholarships throughout so did not take large chunks of the family income

26:38:21 First went to a preparatory school not far from the house called York House; by then we had moved to Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire, to an area called Mill End; it was not a top flight school but the sort of place that you might succeed on your own; can remember no particular teacher having any influence; strongly suspect that my mother was the most important educator through those years; we were taught to read long before we went to school so was ahead of the game; I was a slightly precocious individual as I was always young for my year; from the time I was able to I took things to pieces, I loved playing with electricity, though my parents had no idea what was going on; my sister was also interested in experimenting with electricity; I had an aquarium, dipped in the pond, an uncle gave me a little microscope, had a chemistry set and tried to make explosions, and was interested in balloons, cranes and Meccano, everything, from the earliest years; more manipulative than is common except among those who become practical bench scientists; I have been hands on throughout my career; the least manipulative stage was when I was doing the cell lineage of Caenorhabditis; however, simply handling the worms there were a lot of gimmicks and tricks, which is why I was successful; after that was over I came back to biochemistry and started working on genomes and I was just manipulating throughout until I finally stepped away from the bench in about 2003 when we had finished the nematode genome; like John Gurdon who always did the injections himself, I did the same with DNA cloning; I was doing that and was full-time Director of the Sanger Centre at Hinxton and full-time doing the worm cloning, in fact doing two jobs and working that hard; there are professions, particularly bioinformatics, where they are not manipulating except on the computer screen mathematically; one connection which people are pushing quite hard on is experiencing molecules as objects, to the extent of having walk-in rooms; not sure if that is not just a failure of imagination; mathematicians spend their lives visualizing things without such aids; do look with dismay at schools which are junking a lot of the hands-on squishy biology that we all did; I can't see any real justification, and no health and safety issues, provided you take a few elementary precautions

36:12:03 After preparatory school I went to Merchant Taylors School at Sandy Lodge, within cycling distance of home; I went there because I got a scholarship that paid most of the fees; I, like most of the boys, was a day boy, for which I was glad as my world was a private one in my workshop in my bedroom at home; I was always terribly homesick when away on exchange visits, so glad I was not a boarder; it was a good school; they had a linked scholarship to Cambridge to Pembroke College; at school had an absolute loathing of competitive sport and bored by history etc.; all I wanted to do was science; I never had any skill at music; the music in my life now comes from Daphne, my wife, who is quite a good pianist and plays the clarinet; my parents did listen to classical music and I listened to Radio Luxemburg, but I was never a musician; it does not directly input to my work, but what does is the waking dream; now, though my bench days are behind me, I do wake thinking of ways of expressing something I have to say in a speech which have eluded be before; I keep a pad beside my bed to write thoughts down immediately on waking; drink, in moderation, also releases thoughts; have found walking on a high ridge, alone, also frees thought; I work best in the morning; find it now hard to find time to get away on holiday with Daphne; one advantage with walking is that one can disconnect, go offline, but always have a scrap of paper and pencil

47:00:17 At Merchant Taylors there were some good teachers; one, Lloyd, was particularly inspirational for me; later, at a Sixth Formers' gathering found that other people had the same impression of him; he was a crazy sort of person; on one occasion he started a fire while demonstrating in physics; he opened the cosmos to me by showing how by physical and mathematical thought one could reach out in space and time; other teachers too pushed me hard and tried to challenge me and I challenged them at times; parents were quite keen that I went to Oxbridge; came to Cambridge to read natural sciences; at the time I thought physiology would be interesting but it had not moved into its later more fascinating phase by that time; in the end I found Ian Fleming, my supervisor in organic chemistry, quite inspirational as they were excited by models and predictive theories for what electrons were doing in organic molecules as they reacted; found it very exciting, like Meccano, and organic chemistry is like that; I decided to do organic chemistry in my third year; it turned out well as it is a good foundation, learning about molecules; I have to confess that I did not enjoy being an undergraduate here; I was rather shy and socially distressed, particularly by the lack of girls; more importantly, I just didn't like learning; the thing that carried me through all the way was working with my fingers; there were practicals, but they formed a small part with most of the course learning; for most kids who have been bright at school, coming to Cambridge is a pretty shocking experience because you are no longer the big fish in the little pool; so they were lean years for me with not a lot of comfort, but a few drinking companions; Dean Dewey was my Tutor at Pembroke and a sympathetic man, though I didn't understand him at all; in the first year I coasted; in the second year I joined the ADC and took up theatre lighting; I was never on stage but it is exciting; Miriam Margolyes was my contemporary, and it was a fantastic period for Cambridge drama; I was in awe of them, but lighting was also creative and enormous fun; unfortunately it took much time and I began to slither down academically and didn't do at all well at the end of my second year; both Dewey and my parents talked to me and I determined to learn enough in my third year and scraped a 2:1 which was enough then to become a graduate student; because of the whole atmosphere I decided to drop out and do VSO; would have gone to Africa, and don't know what might have happened if I had gone, but the money dried up on the scheme and I had nothing to do; wandered along and got an interview with Alexander Todd who had enough space for me; Todd was the Professor of Organic Chemistry and had made his name through the elucidation of nucleotide structure and had set up a school of chemistry and was hugely important behind the discoveries of Crick and Watson in deciphering the structure of DNA; I was assigned a supervisor, Colin Reese, who became my mentor for the next two years on the synthesis of oligonucleotides, linking together, at the most basic level, the individual components of nucleic acid; Dan Brown was his contemporary and I still have a very good friend who worked with Dan at the same bench; Colin and the situation changed my life because suddenly I was put in the situation where I didn't have to do any book learning; I was back in my teenage workshop where I could explore chemical reactions; of course, if you do that you find things; there was also a good discussion group among the research students in the laboratory in Lensfield Road; I was enjoying Cambridge not in the sense of the Colleges but in the sense of the science