A new book by James Watson, approaching 80 years of age, may lack the impact of The double helix but, as expected, is frank, humorous and replete with aphorisms
Avoid boring people
James D Watson
Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press 2007 | 341pp | ?14.99 (HB) ISBN 9780192802736
Reviewed by Derry Jones
A new book by James Watson, approaching 80 years of age, may lack the impact of The double helix but, as expected, is frank, humorous and replete with aphorisms. He describes childhood, adolescence, early research and 20 years at Harvard, but this is no ordinary autobiography. Each chapter is titled as behaviour appropriate for a stage in an aspiring scientist’s career - as in ’Manners displayed for academic zing’ - and yields several lessons.
Born in 1928, Watson won a scholarship in 1943 to the University of Chicago, graduating at 19 with a degree that incorporated the humanities and social sciences as well as science. In his only organic chemistry course, he skipped ring compounds to concentrate on ornithology. For graduate work he went to Indiana University for zoology and turned to microbiology and phages. Watson recalls both the contributions to the 1953 discovery of the DNA structure in Cambridge, leading to the 1962 Nobel Prize, and how notes for Honest Jim evolved into The double helix (1968).
When at 40 Watson became director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, he resolved not to run a personal research group but to concentrate on recruiting and supporting scientists who ’cared about the biology of cancer’. Scientists were to be managed like a sports team under a benevolent dictatorship: stars needed star salaries.
Watson’s account ends around 1976, but an epilogue compares Harvard in the 20th century with it now. His criticism of Larry Summer’s recent presidency is over attraction for translational (or market-directed) research rather than for tactless remarks about genetic intelligence differences.
Avoid boring people has no index or notes and the flyleaf carries the only chronological summary; but four-line pen portraits of nearly 90 scientists are helpful.
This is a most enjoyable read, but Watson’s exuberant and candid memoir leaves plenty for science historians. He satisfies two Watson maxims: be first to tell a good story and avoid boring people.